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Financial, health care stocks pull market higher

U.S. stocks closed mostly higher but off their best levels yesterday following three straight days of losses.

Investors piled back into financial and health care companies and moved out of industries like technology that had been leading the market.

The Dow Jones industrials rose 58.42, or 0.7 percent, to 8,555.60. The Dow had been up 98 points. The S&P 500 index rose 7.66, or 0.8 percent, to 918.37, while the Nasdaq composite index slipped 0.34, or less than 0.1 percent, to 1,807.72.

Several upbeat economic reports encouraged investors after a slide earlier this week that dragged the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index down 3.8 percent.

A private research group said its forecast of economic activity rose more than expected in May, marking a second straight gain after seven months of declines.

And the government said the overall number of people drawing unemployment benefits fell last week for the first time since early January. The drop broke a string of 21 straight increases. Separately, the Philadelphia Reserve Bank said manufacturing activity picked up in the mid-Atlantic region.

The reports helped reassure investors that a recovery is still emerging.

But analysts caution that there may still be more air to be let out of the market's huge advance since early March, which added as much as 40 percent to the S&P 500 index.

"I don't think that this rally is sustainable," said Scott Armiger, portfolio manager at Christiana Bank & Trust of yesterday's move. "I still think we have to give up a little bit more."

With trading light as the summer slowdown begins, analysts say more volume is needed in order to move the market significantly in any one direction.

Shares of major banks rose as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appeared before the Senate Banking Committee, defending the regulatory overhaul announced the day before by President Barack Obama. He also said he's seen evidence of healing in the financial industry.

Financial shares had been under pressure because of anxiety about the banking regulations being planned by the Obama administration in response to the credit crisis.

"I think the investing public likes the fact that there's going to be more regulation in some areas where it was lacking," said Joe Keetle, senior wealth manager at Dawson Wealth Management.

The comments came a day after another milepost of recovery in the financial industry as 10 major banks repaid US$68 billion in government rescue loans.

Among financial stocks, JPMorgan Chase & Co. added US$1.44, or 4.4 percent, to US$34.17, while Goldman Sachs Group Inc. gained US$3.36, or 2.4 percent, to US$143.09.

Health care shares added to gains logged on Wednesday as the Senate continued work on a major revamp of the health care system. Pharmaceutical maker Pfizer Inc. rose 34 cents, or 2.3 percent, to US$14.92, while Merck & Co. jumped 88 cents, or 3.6 percent, to US$24.65.

Tech stocks lost ground. Intel Corp. fell 27 cents to US$15.87, while International Business Machines Corp. fell 67 cents to US$106.33.

Traders are expecting higher levels of volatility because Friday brings a quarterly "quadruple witching," which marks the simultaneous expiration of a number of different options contracts. Analysts say stocks are more likely to push higher during the expirations, which often see heavy and fractious trading.

In other trading, the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 2.45, or 0.5 percent, to 509.48.

Advancing shares outnumbered decliners by about 3-to-2 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to a light 1.1 billion shares compared with 1.3 billion Wednesday.


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