Stocks rise on consumer hopes

By Alexandra Twin, senior writer

NEW YORK( -- Stocks gained Thursday as upbeat sales reports from the nation's retailers helped provide optimism about the economic outlook, taking the edge off worries about Greece and other euro zone debt issues.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) added 30 points, or 0.3%. The S&P 500 index (SPX) gained 4 points or 0.3%. The Nasdaq composite (COMP) gained 6 points, or 0.2%, and matched Tuesday's 18-month high.

What have you been buying recently?
  • Only necessities
  • A few small extras and gifts
  • Big-ticket items

Stocks fell in the morning, but managed to erase those losses and edge higher in the afternoon, led by financial shares including American Express (AXP, Fortune 500), JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) and Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500). The KBW Bank (BKX) index added 1.4%. Retail shares gained as well.

Stocks slipped Wednesday after General Motors' huge loss, but the market was also vulnerable after finishing at 18-month highs Tuesday.

The Dow, Nasdaq and S&P 500 have now risen in six of the last seven weeks as investors have bet that continued low interest rates, some stability in the job market and a pickup in the economy will help sustain a stock advance.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Dow is flat for the week, the Nasdaq and the S&P are both up.

Retail: A number of chain stores reported strong March sales thanks in part to the early Easter holiday and signs of improvement in the job market.

Sales at stores open a year or more, a retail metric known as same-store sales, rose 9.1% in March versus a year ago, according to Thomson Reuters. It was the biggest monthly gain since Thomson began keeping records in 2000, and surpassed the company's forecast for a gain of 6.3%.

Among the standouts, women's apparel retailer The Limited (LTD, Fortune 500) said sales rose 15% at stores open a year or more versus forecasts for a rise of 6.8%.

Discounter TJX (TJX, Fortune 500) said sales at stores open a year or more rose 12% in the month. As a result, the retailer raised its current quarter profit outlook.

But some companies warned that a strong March will chip away at April sales. Kohl's (KSS, Fortune 500) said its strong 22.5% jump in March will be followed by a decline in April.

Jobs: The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment rose to 460,000 last week from a revised 442,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said Thursday morning. Economists surveyed by had expected 435,000 claims, on average.

Continuing claims, a measure of those who have been receiving benefits for a week or more, fell to 4,550,000 from 4,681,000 the previous week. Economists surveyed by thought continuing claims would fall to 4,630,000.

Airlines: UAL' (UAUA, Fortune 500)s United Airlines and US Airways (LCC, Fortune 500) are reportedly talking about a merger again, according to several published reports. The two companies discussed teaming up previously in the last decade. UAL shares gained 7% and US Airways shares gained 12%. Other airlines rose as well.

World markets: In overseas trading, European markets slumped as Greece's borrowing costs hit a record high on worries about the country defaulting. Asian markets ended lower.

Bonds: Treasury prices fell, raising the yield on the 10-year note to 3.90% from 3.86% late Wednesday. The 10-year had risen as high as 4% Monday, an 18-month high. Treasury prices and yields move in opposite directions.

Treasury sold $13 billion in 30-year bonds in the afternoon, in the last of four auctions this week worth about $82 billion.

The dollar and commodities: The dollar fell versus the euro and gained against the yen.

COMEX gold for June delivery fell 10 cents to settle at $1,152.90 per ounce.

U.S. light crude oil for May delivery fell 46 cents to settle at $85.39 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Market breadth was mixed. On the New York Stock Exchange, winners beat losers on volume of 1.05 billion shares. On the Nasdaq, advancers topped decliners on volume of 2.35 billion shares. To top of page

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