NEW YORK — The stock market pushed higher Thursday afternoon, sending the Dow tantalizingly close to a record high.
Analysts said the market's upward move was more about traders getting excited than any particular economic event. Government reports and company earnings painted a picture of an economy that was beating investors' low expectations, not one that's growing like gangbusters.
At mid-afternoon, the Dow Jones industrial average was up 34 points to 14,109, just 55 points away from its all-time high. Earlier, at around 2:30 p.m. EST, it came within 15 points.
If it closes above 14,164.53, it will beat the record it set in October 2007 — a time before the financial crisis had fully imploded, when people still believed that stocks, housing prices and wages only went up.
To be sure, the milestone doesn't mean much in practical terms: Professional investors don't change their strategy because the Dow is hitting a record. But it's important for psychological reasons: It can make people feel like the economy is doing better, which can induce them to spend and invest more.
The day started with the stock market plodding more than rising. After gaining a combined 291 points on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Dow spent Thursday morning darting between small gains and losses before taking a decisive turn upward in the early afternoon.
Shortly before 3 p.m. EST, the Standard & Poor's 500 index was up nine points at 1,525. The Nasdaq composite rose 12 to 3,174.
"There was no dramatic, great news," said Leon LaBrecque, CEO of LJPR in Troy, Mich. "This is still not a solid, giant, wonderful rally that I could jump up and down about."
Company earnings were mixed. J.C. Penney and Barnes & Noble reported losses. Wendy's and Domino's reported higher profits.
The government reported that the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the last three months of 2012. That was better than the original estimate of a 0.1 percent decline, but hardly ideal.
The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid fell. Investors described the news as mildly encouraging.
Some investors said that the stock market's rise, and the Dow's near-record, reflected more what traders are feeling and the market's general tendency to rise over time and reach new records, not necessarily a surge in strength in the U.S. economy.
"Costs of goods are going up, wages are lower, that's why people's lives are so miserable," said Ed Butowsky, managing partner of ChapwoodFinance.com in Dallas. "People have to separate the economy from the stock market."
The gains of Tuesday and Wednesday are a case in point. The stock market rose partly because reports showed that Americans are more confident and are buying more homes. But investors were also relieved by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's avowal that the Fed will keep trying to prop up the economy with bond purchases and other programs. That means the Fed thinks the economy is still doing poorly.
Steve Sachs, head of capital markets at ProShares in Bethesda, Md., said it was "completely illogical" for the market to jump because of the Fed's intentions to continue with stimulus programs.
"The reason the Fed continues to pump money into the economy," Sachs said, "is because the economy is not that great."
In Washington, lawmakers prepared for government spending cuts set to automatically kick in Friday. There was no sign that Democrats and Republicans would work out their differences in time to prevent the cuts.
If investors minded, they didn't give much indication. Some said they'd learned not to get too excited after the effects of the previous budget showdown in Washington over the New Year proved anti-climactic.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note held steady at about 1.90 percent.
Among stocks making big moves:
■ Groupon, the coupons website, plunged 21 percent after reporting late Wednesday that its quarterly loss had expanded. The stock fell $1.26 to $4.72.
■ J.C. Penney fell 16 percent after the department store reported a higher-than-expected quarterly loss late Wednesday. The stock dropped $3.32 to $17.84.
■ Wendy's, Domino's, clothing chain Chico's and energy drink maker Monster Beverage were all up after reporting higher profit and revenue.
■ Barnes & Noble shot up 8 percent, up $1.19 to $16.42. The bookstore chain swung to a quarterly loss, though the CEO confirmed that the company was still in talks with its founder about a partial buyout.