Stocks lifted by economic data

By Kate Gibson/MarketWatch

NEW YORK – U.S. stocks climbed Thursday, with the Samp&P 500 extending gains into a third day, after weekly jobless claims fell to a multi-year low and consumer sentiment rose in December.
“There is a clear downward trend in jobless claims, which peaked in March of ’09, and has made steady progress since,” said Alan Skrainka, chief investment officer at Cornerstone Wealth Management LLC in Des Peres, Mo.
“This bodes well not only for holiday sales, but future economic growth,” he added.
Also stretching gains into a third session, the Dow Jones industrial average added 61.91 points, or 0.5 percent, to 12,169.65.
Eighteen of the index’s components are up on the year, with fast-food chain McDonald’s Corp. up the most for 2011, gaining 28 percent since the end of 2010.
The Samp&P 500 index rose 10.28 points, or 0.8 percent, to 1,254.
The Nasdaq composite climbed 21.48 points, or 0.8 percent, to 2,599.45.
On the New York Mercantile Exchange, crude-oil futures on Thursday ended at $99.53 a barrel, up 86 cents, after surpassing $100 a barrel for the first time in a week during the session.
With only five trading sessions remaining in 2011, the Dow is up 5.1 percent year-to-date, while the Samp&P 500 is off 0.3 percent for the not-yet-ended year. The Nasdaq composite is down 2 percent from the end of 2010.
“Stocks are tragically priced. The bad news is reflected in the stock market, and the good news, on the economic front, is not,” said Skrainka at Cornerstone Wealth Management.
“Generally, economists are too downbeat for 2012. We think there is potential for surprise to the upside, not only for employment but for GDP growth.”
On Thursday, the government’s count of first-time filings for unemployment benefits last week declined to 364,000, the lowest level since April 2008.
And the Conference Board’s index of leading economic indicators rose 0.5 percent in November after a 0.9 percent rise the month before.
Separately, the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan’s final reading of consumer sentiment rose to 69.9 in December from 64.1 at the end of last month.
“We’ll soon see if the rise off the summer low in confidence translates into a good gain in holiday sales,” Peter Boockvar, equity strategist at Miller Tabak, wrote in emailed commentary, noting the improved sentiment coincided with lower prices at the gas pump.
Revised figures from the Commerce Department had gross domestic product rising at a 1.8 percent annual rate from July through September, down from the 2 percent estimated in November.

Click video to hear audio