Encouraging economic reports pushed stocks higher Thursday. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 61 points, its third gain in a row.
The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits dropped last week to the lowest level since April 2008, the latest sign that the job market is healing. It was the third week in a row that applications fell. The Conference Board also reported that its measure of future economic activity had a big increase last month. It was the second straight gain, signaling that the U.S. economy was picking up speed and the risk of another recession was fading.
"Today, Main Street is what matters because Main Street makes up 71 percent of the economy," said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist for Prudential Securities. "You can't argue with the fact that the cost of gas has come down, which puts more money in the pockets of consumers to spend, and so things are starting to tick up."
Krosby noted that the latest data showed that shoppers were opening up their wallets to spend during the holidays. However, she said the economy needs to grow at a faster pace than 2 percent to be able to survive any shocks caused by the European debt crisis or a sharp slowdown in China's economy in 2012.
The government lowered its estimate of U.S. economic growth in the July-September quarter to an annual rate of 1.8 percent from 2 percent. That was still the fastest growth this year, up from 1.3 percent in the April-June quarter.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 61.91 points, or 0.51 percent, to close at 12,169.65. The Dow has risen 409 points over the past three days. Bank of America Corp. rose 4.6 percent to $5.47, the most among the 30 stocks in the Dow.
The S&P 500 index gained 10.28 points, or 0.83 percent, to 1,254. The Nasdaq composite index rose 21.48, or 0.83 percent, to 2,599.45.
Economists say that the improving job market, strong holiday shopping, and cheaper gas prices will leave consumers with more money to spend. That would get the economy growing at an annual rate of more than 3 percent in the final three months of this year, which would be the fastest pace since 3.8 percent growth in the spring of 2010.
Banks, energy and technology stocks were the biggest gainers, while consumer goods companies traded lower. Morgan Stanley led bank stocks, gaining 6.5 percent to close at $15.88, while among tech stocks Akamai Technologies Inc. the biggest gainer, rising 18.6 percent to $31.63.
In other corporate news:
— Mead Johnson Nutrition Co. plummeted 10 percent on news that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pulled a batch of its powdered infant formula from more than 3,000 of its stores nationwide. A newborn Missouri boy was fed a batch of the Enfamil Newborn powder made by Mead and died from what preliminary tests indicate was a rare bacterial infection. So far, no link has been established between the death and the formula and the government has not ordered a recall of Enfamil.
— Bed, Bath & Beyond Inc. slid 6 percent after the retailer warned investors that its fourth-quarter earnings might be lower than analysts had expected. Third-quarter sales also fell below analysts' expectations.
With just over a week of trading left in 2011, the S&P 500 is less than 1 percent below where it started the year. The Dow has managed to gain 5.1 percent in 2011, while the Nasdaq is still off 2 percent.
Nearly three stocks gained for every one that fell on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading volume was very light at 3.5 billion, compared to the recent average of 4.6 billion.