Stocks climb amid signs of stability

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NEW YORK -- Wall Street extended its recovery from last week's big plunge, rising Thursday after several stable sessions helped buttress investor sentiment and allay some concerns about the economy.

Thursday's advance helped investors speed past lackluster retail sales figures and focus on more promising comments about March sales. Investors also grew more confident following gains in markets in Europe and Asia. The dollar was mixed against major currencies and fought its way higher against the yen, easing some concern about whether global liquidity would tighten.

Investors eager for signals about the health of the economy bet on rising fortunes for U.S. businesses a day ahead of the Labor Department's much-anticipated February employment report. Strong employment is seen as crucial on Wall Street because robust consumer spending has kept the economy charging ahead in recent years. Larger concerns about the economy figured heavily in last week's selloff.

The Dow Jones industrials were up more than 100 points in afternoon trading before pulling back amid rumors a subprime lender would declare bankruptcy. According to preliminary calculations, the Dow closed up 68.25, or 0.56%, at 12,260.70.

Lender New Century Financial Corp. announced after the markets closed that it would no longer be accepting loan applications, and that it secured $265 million in financing to help it meet financial obligations.

Broader stock indicators also put up sizable gains Thursday. The Standard & Poor's 500 index climbed 9.92, or 0.71%, to 1,401.89, and the Nasdaq composite index advanced 13.09, or 0.55%, to 2,387.73.

Bonds fell as stocks advanced; the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 4.51% from 4.50% late Wednesday. Gold prices rose.

Light, sweet crude fell 18 cents to $61.64 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The focus on broader market sentiment and the impending February employment report overshadowed word from the Labor Department that the number of newly laid-off workers seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level in a month.

Unlike last week, news from overseas provided little headwind to U.S. stocks. On Thursday, the European Central Bank raised interest rates by a quarter point, as expected, and the Bank of England left rates unchanged. Turbulence in stock markets worldwide last week gave a sense that Wall Street, London and financial capitals in Asia were essentially one big trading floor -- stocks seemed to move in tandem over concerns about whether the global economy would begin to sputter.

The major indexes did show some volatility on speculation New Century would make some kind of announcement. The stock, which dropped below a 52-week low of $3.94 to as low as $3.37 before rebounding somewhat, fell $1.20, or 23.2%, to $3.96.

Nonetheless, investors seemed able to look past some unpleasant news from retailers. Wal-Mart's same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, rose a lower-than-expected 0.9% in February. Wall Street had been looking for sales at the world's largest retailer, which has lately shown some difficulty boosting its monthly numbers, to increase 1.5%. Wal-Mart, one of the 30 stocks that comprise the Dow industrials, fell 11 cents to $47.82.

Nordstrom rose $2.31, or 4.6%, to $52.73 after its February same-store sales jumped 9.1%, well above the 5.7% increase predicted by a Thomson Financial poll of analysts.

Same-store sales are a key measure of a retailer's performance and a strong report Wednesday luxury department store chain Saks Inc. fanned Wall Street's expectations for Saks' competitors. Saks, after rising Wednesday, advanced 10 cents to $19.92. March, with the Easter holiday, will likely prove to be a more important month for retailers.

Hollis-Eden Pharmaceuticals Inc. fell $1.38, or 32.2%, to $2.90 after the U.S. government rejected the biotech drug developer's radiation sickness treatment.

Express Scripts Inc. rose $1.20 to $75.97 after raising its hostile bid for Caremark Rx Inc., which is in the sights of retail pharmacy chain CVS Corp. Caremark advanced 48 cents to $61.78.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by 3 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.65 billion shares.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 5.24, or 0.68%, to 781.14.

Overseas, the Nikkei rose 1.94%, Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index added 1.36% and the sometimes-volatile Shanghai Composite Exchange rose 1.08%. It was a nearly 9% drop in Shanghai on Feb. 27 that helped ignite a worldwide spasm of selling that led major U.S. indexes to give back their gains for the year.

In Europe, stocks added to gains after the U.S. markets advanced. Britain's FTSE 100 closed up 1.16%, Germany's DAX index added 1.44%, and France's CAC-40 advanced 1.27%.
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