- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 11, 2012

NEW YORK — Stocks rose for a fifth straight day Tuesday as investors latched on to reports of progress in budget talks in Washington. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index had its biggest gain this month.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 78.56 points to 13,248.44. It was up as much as 137 points earlier in the day. The S&P 500 finished up 9.29 points at 1,427.84. The Nasdaq composite ended up 35.34 points at 3,022.30.

Delta Air Lines rose 52 cents, or 5.1 percent, to $10.66 after the company said it will buy almost half of Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic for $360 million as it seeks a bigger share of the lucrative New York-to-London travel market.

AIG gained $1.90 to $35.26 after the U.S. Treasury Department said it has sold the rest of its stake in the insurer. AIG was bailed out by the government after nearly collapsing during the 2008 financial crisis.

The S&P and Nasdaq got a boost from Apple, which makes up 4 percent of the S&P and 11 percent of the Nasdaq. Apple isn’t part of the Dow.

Apple advanced $11.57, or 2.2 percent, to $541.39, its biggest advance in more than a week. Apple had fallen sharply since closing at a record high of $702.10 on Sept. 19 as investors worried that the tech giant won’t be able to maintain its rapid growth as competition in the smartphone market intensifies.

Stocks have edged up since the start of the month as investors watch for developments in the budget talks. Tax increases and federal spending cuts are scheduled to start Jan. 1 unless a deal is reached to reduce the U.S. budget deficit. Economists say the measures, if implemented, could eventually push the economy back into recession.

The S&P 500 fell as much as 5 percent after the U.S. presidential election Nov. 6 as investors worried that gridlock in Washington would prevent a budget deal. With Tuesday’s advance, the S&P 500 has recouped almost all of the ground it lost since the election when it closed at 1,428.39.

The Wall Street Journal reported that budget negotiations between the White House and Republican House Speaker John Boehner had “progressed steadily” in recent days. That reinvigorated talks that appeared to have stalled, the paper reported, citing people close to the process.

Stock markets stayed higher even after Boehner said midday Tuesday that President Barack Obama is slow-walking talks to avoid the fiscal cliff, and hasn’t outlined spending cuts he’s willing to support as part of a compromise. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday afternoon that it would be “extremely difficult” to pass legislation to address the so-called fiscal cliff before Christmas, but added there’s still a chance it can be done.

“The market has been very susceptible to ‘fiscal cliff’ headlines,” said Todd Salamone, a senior vice president at Schaeffers Investment Research, adding that stocks have rallied more on good news than they have fallen on indications that talks were stalling. “It seems the expectation is that something will get done, but it’s a very cautious expectation. There’s a lot of money on the sidelines.”

Stocks are holding on to their gains for the year. The Dow Jones is up 8.4 percent since the start of the year, while the S&P 500 has gained 13.5 percent.

The Federal Reserve is expected to announce a new bond-buying plan to support the U.S. economy with the goal of further reducing long-term interest rates and encouraging borrowing by companies and individuals. Once its two-day policy meeting ends Wednesday, the Fed is likely to say it will start buying more long-term Treasurys to replace a program that expires at year’s end.

“I would be a huge shock to the system if it wasn’t continued,” said Dave Abate, a senior wealth advisor with Strategic Wealth Partners in Seven Hills, Ohio. “The markets across the boards are pricing in a continuation of the stimulus.”

Investors were also encouraged by a report that showed an index of German investor optimism rose more than expected in December, suggesting market professionals think Europe’s largest economy will avoid an outright recession.

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