With the best third quarter since 2010 in the books, stocks continued their strong performance to kick off the 2012 home stretch -- at least until Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke and markets faded into the afternoon. However, that's just noise, as Bernanke reiterated the Fed's position and didn't make any new policy.
The big news of the day was what kicked off the rally to begin with -- strong manufacturing data. Expectations were for another decline, but the Institute for Supply Management index clocked in at 51.5 (anything above 50 indicates economic expansion). While there could be some monthly noise, reversing the negative trend haunting the sector over the summer does more for our recovery than any Ben Bernanke speech.
With that in mind, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) finished the day up 78 points, or 0.6%, soundly outperforming the two other major indexes (more on that in a moment). Meanwhile the S&P 500 posted a 0.3% gain, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq actually closed with a 0.1% decrease. The Dow owes its outperformance to the fact that only four of the 30 components finished the day in the red.
The manufacturing news certainly boosted the Dow's financials, none more so than American Express (NYSE: AXP). Shares of the credit card company climbed 1.5% despite having to pay $28 million in fines and $85 million to customers after settling four federal agencies' accusations that the company engaged in deceptive practices and charged unlawful late fees. However, that fine isn't significant to a company with more than $22 billion in cash. What is important is if the ISM data points to an economy that's turning around and that a newly confident American consumer starts spending again.
Most importantly, the Dow's heaviest weighted component, IBM (NYSE: IBM), was also among its top performers, finishing up 1.5% and hitting an all-time high in the process. After Accenture upped its 2013 guidance last week, investors are rightly excited about IBM's IT consulting business going into earnings.
Another tech titan, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) didn't fare as well, as shares sold off 0.9%, marking its seventh down day in a row. Concerns surround the Windows 8 launch after Intel's CEO said the product will go to market even though "improvements still need to be made." And with a full 50% of Americans now using a smartphone or tablet, Microsoft needs a hit -- otherwise it risks being relegated to a niche name in mobile or trapped on a PC.
To find out whether Microsoft is a bad news buy amid all the negativity, download our new premium Microsoft report. It goes through key opportunities and risks facing Microsoft and comes with a full year of updates. Get your copy today by clicking here.