Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan managed to deliver his semi-annual assessment of the economy today without freaking out Wall Street, but the stock market is likely to go into a frenzy tomorrow thanks to Bill Gates.
After the bell, Microsoft Corp. announced that it is finally going to satisfy shareholders who have been clamoring for a share of the more than $56 billion in cash that the software giant has accumulated.
Microsoft said it will pay part of that stash out later this year by giving stockholders a "special dividend" of $3 a share. That's a windfall of more than 10 percent based on the $28 a share that Microsoft stock had been trading for. The stock quickly started gained more than a dollar in after-hours trading, moving up even before Microsoft's 5 p.m. conference call to explain details of the plan.
Microsoft will also double its regular dividend to 16 cents a share per quarter, from 8 cents.
And it will buy back as much as $30 billion worth of its stock over the next four years.
Microsoft officials said its operations are throwing off so much cash that it can afford to make the massive payout -- which will cost as much as $75 billion by some estimates -- without skimping on the massive research and development spending needed to keep it lead in personal computer software.
In the past, Microsoft has said it was building up its cash reserves to pay any penalties in the anti-trust cases it has been involved in, but those have so far been settled at a relatively modest cost.
Any one of today's announcements would be enough to trigger a jump in Microsoft stock and the triple promises to trigger a feeding frenzy.
The big question about tomorrow is how many other technology stocks will Microsoft carry on its coat tails.
In today's trading, the tech-dominated Nasdaq Stock Market composite index scored its biggest advance in six weeks, moving up 33 points to 1917.07. On Monday, the Nasdaq composite dropped to a new low for the year and then rebounded to close up a fraction of a point for the day. To students of market movements, that was a sign the index was ripe to end its recent slide and began moving higher.
The Dow Jones industrial average climbed 55 points to 10149.07 and the Standard & Poors 500 stock index closed up almost 8 points at 1108.67.
The market started moving higher in morning trading as investors bet on a positive response to Greenspan's congressional testimony. After pausing to listen to what he actually had to say, stocks moved slightly higher.
The Fed chairman delivered no surprises, saying he believes the June slump in consumer spending "should prove short-lived." The Fed is now looking for the economy to grow about 4.75 percent this year, down slightly from its previous forecast of 5 percent growth. If that target is hit, it will be the economy's best performance since 1999.
Repeating his pledge to raise interest rates at a "measured" pace, Greenspan said the Fed will make sure that inflation does not get out of control by boosting rates as much as necessary.
Investors today saw the first hint that higher rates are hurting housing, the sector of the economy that is usually the most sensitive to rates. The pace of homebuilding in June slowed by more than 8 percent to 1.8 million new houses a year.