If this were a drinking game and the phrase "fiscal cliff" were a trigger, we'd all be drunk by 8 a.m. Luckily for investors, it wasn't just positive talk revolving around fiscal cliff negotiations that sent the markets screaming higher today.

According to data from the National Association of Realtors, record-low interest rates and a rise in homebuilder confidence helped boost new home sales by 2.1% to an annual rate of 4.79 million – an 11% boost over the year-ago period. Although we're still well below what's considered a healthy real estate market, things continue to improve.

All told, today's optimism pushed the broad-based S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) higher by 27.01 points (1.99%) to 1,386.89.

One of the primary reasons today's rally was so strong was the nearly $39 advance in shares of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). With analysts obviously torn on Apple's near-term growth prospects -- Merrill Lynch cut its price target and trimmed margin estimates on Apple, while an analyst at Topeka Capital referred to this sell-off as "insane" -- investors were willing to gamble on a company that was trading at less than 10 times forward earnings and has $121 billion in cash. I don't call a bet on Apple much of a gamble and expect any dip under $600 to present buying opportunities for investors.

Meat producer Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN) actually led the charge higher today within the S&P 500, up 11%, after reporting much better-than-expected earnings. For the quarter Tyson earned $0.55 per share versus an expected $0.43, despite the fact that its revenue slightly missed expectations. More importantly, Tyson rewarded shareholders with a 25% boost to its quarterly dividend and plans to pay out a $0.10 per share special dividend. I'd say that's worth clucking about.

On top of better-than-expected growth in housing sales, do-it-yourself home improvement store Lowe's (NYSE:LOW) also rose 6% after reporting its third-quarter earnings. A mixture of job cuts, improved efficiency, lower inventory, and consumers' preparation for Superstorm Sandy, helped push same-store sales higher by 1.8% as net income nearly doubled to $0.35 from $0.18 in the year-ago quarter. Keep in mind that Lowe's is still very dependent on appliances to push profits higher so it's still miles behind Home Depot, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

In the losers column -- and trust me, there weren't many --was insurer Assurant (NYSE:AIZ), which point-and-clicked its way to a nearly 3% loss on a very green day. Assurant is an accident and health insurer that looks poised to be creamed by one-time losses related to Superstorm Sandy. I wouldn't look too far past these one-time losses as they'll give insurers a reasonable excuse to boost premiums and become even more profitable than before, but Assurant was nonetheless the laggard of the day.

Slowing or growing?
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Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and Home Depot, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Apple and writing covered calls on Lowe's. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.