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Markets: Best quarter for shares since 1998

Stocks on Wall Street recorded its biggest quarterly advance in more than a decade. Oil and gold were also up.

The Dow opened higher after a pair of economic readings signalled increasing confidence in American consumers.

Spending in February was up even as incomes rose modestly, while a March reading on the Reuters/University of Michigan consumer-sentiment index came in better than expected.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 66.22 points, or 0.5%, to 13,212.04 – a rise of 994 points or 8.1%, its best first-quarter percentage gain since 1998.

Broader stocks rose as well, with the S&P 500 index rising 0.4% to 1408.47. It was up 12% for the quarter.

Technology shares lagged, however. The Nasdaq Composite dropped 0.1% to 3091.27, its fourth session of losses. But over the quarter the Nasdaq had its best showing since 2000, up 19%.

Among individual stocks, Walt Disney rose 1.5% and Hewlett-Packard tacked on 1.3%.

While performed well over the March quarter, trading has been down. The average daily volume on the New York Stock Exchange was the lowest since 2007, while on the Nasdaq it was the thinnest since 2006.

Other markets: Europe up, Asia mixed
European stocks rallied after eurozone finance ministers agreed to increase the size of the region's firewall.

The pan-European Stoxx Europe 600 index rose 1% to 263.32, capping a gain of 7.7% for the quarter and eliminating most of the March loss.

European shares have now risen for the past two quarters, surging a combined 16.4%, as worries about the euro-zone debt crisis surged for much of 2011 before ebbing.

In Germany, the DAX 30 index gained 1% to 6946.83. It surged 17.8% in the first quarter and has leapt 26.3% over the last two quarters.

In France, the CAC 40 index rose 1.3% to 3423.81 and climbed 8.4% over the quarter. In London, the FTSE 100 index rose 3.5% over the quarter and ended 0.5% up at 5768.45.

Most Asian markets higher, while weak industrial production data in Japan weighed on Tokyo shares.

Both the Hang Seng Index and the Nikkei Stock Average fell 0.3% to 20,555.58 and 10,083.56 respectively.

The Korean Kospi was flat at 2014.04 and the Australian S&P/ASX 200 index was down 0.1% at 4420.00.

The Shanghai Composite Index managed to claw back a portion of recent losses to gain 0.5% 2262.79, while Singapore's Straits Times Index rose 0.5% 3010.46 and India's Sensex added 1.9% to 17,404.20.

Over the quarter, the Hang Seng Index rose 12%, the Shanghai Composite was up 2.9% and the Nikkei Average gained 19% – its best quarter in decades.

The Kospi climbed 10% and the S&P/ASX 200 up 6.9%, erasing some of its recent under-performance.

Commodities: Oil, gold up
Oil prices finished slightly higher, ending the quarter with a 4.2% gain and after heavy losses earlier in the week.

Light, sweet crude for May delivery rose 24USc, or 0.2%, to settle at $US103.02 a barrel in New York. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange gained 63USc, or 0.5%, to $US123.02 a barrel.

On Thursday, the Nymex contract lost 2.5% in a rout driven in large part by concerns about a potential release of global emergency oil stockpiles.

Gold prices ended the quarter up 6.6% after breaking a three-day losing streak.

Gold futures for June delivery gained $US17.10, or 1% to $US1669.30 an ounce in New York.

Currencies: US dollar falls
The US dollar dipped while the euro held its gains. The euro rose to $US1.3350, up from $US1.3294 on Thursday.

Against the yen, the dollar traded at ¥82.01, down from ¥82.45.

The pound pressed above the $US1.60 level to trade at $US1.6017, up from $US1.5940. The Dollar Index ended the quarter down 1.7%.

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