US STOCKS-Wall St rallies on growth optimism

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 25, 2013 15:10 hrs

* S&P 500 rise after first weekly decline in eight

* Investors show initial relief about Italian elections

* Barnes & Noble rallies on report part of it may go private

* Indexes up: Dow 0.3 pct, S&P 0.5 pct, Nasdaq 0.5 pct

By Ryan Vlastelica

NEW YORK, Feb 25 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rose on Monday, suggesting the equity rally was intact as investors grew more confident that the global economy would continue to grow.

Stocks have been strong performers so far this year, with the S&P 500 jumping 6.2 percent in 2013 to hover around its highest levels since 2007. That has prompted many to call for a pullback, though recently any dip has been used as a buying opportunity.

While the S&P fell last week, the decline was a slight 0.3 percent and was the first weekly drop after a seven-week string of gains.

"The major trend is that indexes will keep moving higher, a reflection that the economy continues to grow at a moderate pace," said Bernard Baumohl, managing director at the Economic Outlook Group in Princeton, New Jersey.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 45.78 points, or 0.33 percent, at 14,046.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 6.90 points, or 0.46 percent, at 1,522.50. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 16.87 points, or 0.53 percent, at 3,178.69.

Equities will face a test with the looming debate over sequestration, massive U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect on Friday if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement over spending and taxes. The White House issued warnings about the harm the cuts are likely to inflict on the economy if enacted.

Early results from Italy's general election cheered markets there after the pro-reform, centre-left Democratic Party was leading Silvio Berlusconi's conservative bloc. Investors worried if the elections went the wrong way, efforts to handle Italy's debt problems would be undermined.

"Odds are that there will be a coalition government that will let the austerity measures stay in place, allowing yields to come down and avoiding what would have been a headwind for U.S. markets," said Baumohl.

European shares rose 0.4 percent while Italy's main FTSE MIB soared 3.5 percent.

The Nasdaq was lifted by a rallies at SanDisk Corp, which jumped 2.7 percent to $50.81, and Amgen Inc, up 3.8 percent to $90.16.

Barnes & Noble Inc climbed 7.8 percent to $14.56 after the Wall Street Journal reported that Chairman Leonard Riggio was considering a bid for the company's bookstore business.

Lowe's Cos Inc reported earnings that beat expectations, helped by rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Sandy in the United States. After climbing in premarket, shares dipped 0.7 percent to $37.42.

With 83 percent of the S&P 500 having reported results, 69 percent of beat profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

Dynavax Technologies Inc shares plunged 34 percent to $1.96 after the Food and Drug Administration denied approval for the company's adult hepatitis B vaccine and sought additional data for evaluate its safety.

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