Associated Press
In this Jan. 10, 2012 file photo, trader Kevin Lodewick, right, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Robust growth in China helped stock markets rally strongly Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012, as investor fears of an abrupt slowdown in the world's second-largest economy were eased. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Slight improvements in Europe's troubled debt markets and China's economy were enough to lift stocks on Tuesday. The Dow Jones industrial average rose as many as 151 points in the morning before fading to a 60-point gain at the close.

Debt auctions by Spain, Greece and Europe's bailout fund drew solid interest from investors, easing fears that recent credit-rating downgrades would prevent them from obtaining funds. The downgrades had threatened to increase borrowing costs and intensify the region's debt crisis.

The Chinese government said earlier that its economy slowed less dramatically in the fourth quarter than analysts had expected.

There's so much money sitting in short-term accounts and earning zero return that even a shred of good news can jolt the market higher, said David Kelly, chief market strategist with J.P. Morgan Funds.

"The stock market is cheap, but cash and Treasurys are extremely expensive," Kelly said. "That's why even though people are busy taking money out of stocks and putting it into bond funds, they really should be doing the opposite."

The Dow rose 60.01 points, or 0.5 percent, to close at 12,482.07. It was the Dow's highest close since July 26, before the European debt crisis set off months of volatility. The Dow is up 264 points in the first 10 days of the year, the best start to a year since 2003.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index gained 4.58 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,293.67. The S&P 500 had risen earlier to 1,303.02; it hasn't traded above 1,300 since Aug. 1.

The Nasdaq composite index added 17.41 points, or 0.6 percent, to 2,728.08.

The market was closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

Bank stocks were uneven after a mixed batch of earnings reports. Wells Fargo & Co. rose 0.7 percent after strength in its lending business helped it beat Wall Street's fourth-quarter earnings estimates. Citigroup Inc. fell 8.2 percent and M&T Bank Corp. fell 1.6 percent after their earnings fell short of estimates.

Overseas markets rose earlier Tuesday after Spain auctioned off billions in short-term debt at sharply lower interest rates, indicating strong demand for the nation's bonds. Spain's borrowing costs had spiked in recent weeks on fears it would be engulfed by the crisis and default on its debts.