NEW YORK – It came and went in a flash each time, a number on a board for mere seconds, but its symbolic power couldn’t be dismissed.
The Dow Jones industrial average, powered higher all year by optimism that the economic recovery is finally for real, crossed 13,000 on Tuesday for the first time since May 2008.
The last time the Dow was there, unemployment was 5.4 percent, and Lehman Brothers was a solvent investment bank. Financial crises happened in other countries, or the history books.
The milestone Tuesday came about two hours into the trading day. The Dow was above 13,000 for about 30 seconds, and for slightly longer at about noon and 1:30 p.m., but couldn’t hold its gains. It finished up 15.82 points at 12,965.69.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 index surpassed 1,363, its peak from April 2011, during the day but closed at 1,362.21, up 0.98 point.
The Nasdaq composite, which is heavy with technology stocks and trading at levels not seen since December 2000, closed down 3.21 points at 2,948.57.
It was just last summer when the Dow unburdened itself of 2,000 points in three terrifying weeks. Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating, Washington was fighting over the federal borrowing limit, and the European debt crisis was raging.
A second recession in the United States was a real fear. But the economy grew faster every quarter last year, and gains in the job market have been steady, including 243,000 jobs added in January alone.
“Essentially over the last couple of months you’ve taken the two biggest fears off the table, that Europe is going to melt down and that we’re going to have another recession here,” said Scott Brown, chief economist for Raymond James.
The tumult of last summer and fall left the Dow as low as 10,655. It closed Tuesday 22 percent above that low. The Dow is 1,199 points from an all-time high, a 9 percent rally from here.
A long-awaited bailout to help Greece prevent a potentially catastrophic default, announced before dawn in Europe after 12 hours of talks, helped the Dow clear 13,000.
After months in which talks crawled along and vague headlines yanked the market up and down, the conclusion was almost anticlimactic because the markets were already expecting an agreement.
European markets didn’t take the news as well. Stocks closed down 3.5 percent in Greece, where stocks have lost 80 percent of their value since 2007.
In the U.S., investors were cheered early by earnings from Home Depot, watched closely as a barometer of American spending on homes, and Macy’s. Wal-Mart missed Wall Street expectations, and its stock lost 4 percent, worst among the 30 stocks in the Dow.