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While you were sleeping: US voters head to the polls

Wall Street advanced as voters headed to the polls in the US in a neck-and-neck race between President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney.

Among the most important battlegrounds are the states of Virginia and Ohio, which both end their voting relatively early, at 7pm and 7.30pm Eastern Standard Time respectively, according to Reuters.

"I wouldn't expect Ohio or Virginia to be called early, but if it starts to look clear one way or another that would be an early harbinger," political scientist Steven Schier of Carleton College in Minnesota told Reuters.

While the race remains tight, recent polls gave Mr Obama a slight edge. A victory for the president would make him the first in two decades to be re-elected with a jobless rate above 6% – and only the second since World War II, according to Bloomberg News.

Indeed, the latest data on the American jobs market was a reminder of the challenging road ahead. A Labor Department report showed that job openings slid to 3.56 million in September from 3.66 million in August, while the hiring rate fell to 3.1% from 3.3%.

The news wasn't all gloomy. Shares of AOL received a boost, last up 16.7%, from better-than-expected results driven by strong advertising revenue growth.

"Things look great," RBC Capital Markets analyst Andre Sequin told Reuters. "This company is continuing to make steps in the right direction."

In afternoon trading in New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 1.25%, while the Standard & Poor's 500 Index rose 1.04% and the Nasdaq Composite Index advanced 0.67%.

The stock market "has been directionless over the last few weeks because of uncertainty about what fiscal and tax policy looks like next year", Perry Piazza, director of investment strategy at Contango Capital Advisors in San Francisco, told Reuters.

"You could argue that just having the uncertainty behind us could lead to a bit of a relief rally."

In Europe, the Stoxx 600 Index finished the session with a 0.6% increase from the previous close. National benchmark indexes advanced in Germany, France and the UK also.

It certainly was not the report on German factory orders that inspired the positive mood among equity investors today, as it showed the biggest decline in a year.

Orders, adjusted for seasonal swings and inflation, sank 3.3% in September from August, when they fell a revised 0.8%, according to the nation's Economy Ministry.

Meanwhile, political wrangling in Athens over yet another round of austerity measures led tens of thousands of Greeks to the streets in a general strike.

(BusinessDesk)