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Stocks approach four-year highs

Wall Street’s broad S&P 500 index topped 1400 for the first time in nearly four years after firm readings on the jobs market and manufacturing activity.

Unemployment benefit applications fell more than expected last week, while manufacturers from upstate New York down to Delaware are seeing better business conditions this month.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 58.66 points, or 0.4%, to 13,252.76 at the close (9am NZ time). It was the Dow's seventh consecutive gain, the longest streak since an eight-session run ended in February.

The S&P 500 was up 0.6% to 1402.60, while the Nasdaq Composite was up 0.5% to 305.37.

Among blue chips, Cisco Systems fell 1.4% after announcing plans to acquire NDS Group, a UK video software maker, in a $US4 billion deal.

Bank of America, up 4.5%, and JP Morgan Chase, up 2.6%, led the blue chips. Apple rose 4.5% after briefly topping US$600 for the first time.

Other markets: Europe, Asia up
European stocks finished higher. The Stoxx Europe 600 index ended up 0.3% at 270.98.

Germany's DAX index rose 0.9% to 7144.45, while France's CAC-40 index finished 0.4% higher at 3580.21.

The UK's FTSE 100 index fell 0.1% to 5940.72 after Fitch Ratings cut its outlook on the UK to negative, saying the country's financial flexibility was "very limited."

Asian markets mostly were lower. China's Shanghai Composite fell 0.7% to 2373.77, after falling 2.6% on Wednesday after Premier Wen Jiabao's declaration of his government's continued commitment to cooling the housing market.

Australia's S&P/ASX 200 index dropped 0.2% to 4277.8, Korea's Kospi gave up 0.1% to 2043.76 and Singapore's Straits Times Index was little changed at 3025.84.

Japan's Nikkei Stock Average gained 0.7% to 10123.28, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index added 0.2% to 21,353.53 in choppy trading.

Commodities: Oil steady, gold up
Crude-oil prices were flat at $US105.43 a barrel and gold added 1% to $US1658.90 an ounce.

The US dollar lost ground against the euro and yen.

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