Banks lead stock rally; Nasdaq nears 3,000

MATTHEW CRAFT AP Business Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Banks dodged a big hit from the Greek debt crisis and rallied Thursday to lead the stock market higher. Strong retail sales and more encouraging news about the U.S. job market also helped stocks rise.

The banks of the world are on the hook for at most $70 billion in bond-insurance payments if Greece defaults on its debt. But a panel ruled that Greece's plan to restructure its debt should not trigger any bond-insurance payments, at least not yet.

Bank stocks pushed higher in relief. Goldman Sachs rose 4.7 percent, and Morgan Stanley rose 3.6 percent.

JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America were among the top gainers in the Dow Jones industrial average. The Dow rose 54 points to 13,005 at 2 p.m. Eastern. That's a gain of 0.4 percent.

In the broader market, the S&P 500 index rose 10 points to 1,375.

The Nasdaq composite index rose 28 points to 2,994. The Nasdaq briefly topped 3,000 for the first time in more than a decade Wednesday.

In the latest sign of improvement in the job market, the number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest point since March 2008. The four-week average was also the lowest in four years.

Oil rose 1 percent to $108.30 a barrel. The surging price of oil has weighed on investors' minds in recent weeks. Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial, said higher oil prices could eventually cause a sharp drop in the stock market. They could also give money managers an excuse to take some winnings off the table after the S&P 500 has gained 9 percent over two months.

"We're going to have a pullback at some point, because money managers want to lock in their profits," she said. "The catalyst could be these escalating oil prices."

The drop in unemployment claims helped pushed Treasury yields up. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury rose to 2.05 percent from 1.99 percent late Wednesday.

The government also reported that consumers earned a little more in January and spent most of the extra money. The Commerce Department said consumer spending increased 0.2 percent in January. Americans' income rose 0.3 percent, the second straight monthly increase.

Costco Wholesale, Target Corp. and other retailers reported better than expected February sales, as more customers showed up to shop.

In other economic news out Thursday, February auto sales are expected to hit over 14 million for the second month in a row. Ford rose 3 percent after reporting a 14 percent gain in U.S. auto sales.

Among stocks making big moves:

-- Gap soared 7.3 percent, the most in the S&P 500 index. The clothing retailer said a key sales figure rose 4 percent in February, helped by strong demand for spring clothing at its Banana Republic chain. Analysts had expected Gap Inc.'s same-store sales to drop.

-- Kroger gained 1.7 percent. The grocery store chain said its adjusted earnings beat analysts' expectations and it also raised its full-year earnings forecast.

-- Sotheby's plunged 9 percent after the auction house reported earnings and revenues that were well below what Wall Street analysts were expecting.