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Stocks Finish Higher After Bernanke Comments

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Stocks rebounded in late trades to finish in positive territory Thursday after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke shrugged off concerns on inflation, indicating that the central bank will continue its quantitative easing policy.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose by 20 points, or 0.2% to close at 12,062 after trading in a narrow band for most of the trading session. The S&P 500 was higher by 3 points, or 0.2%, at 1307, while the Nasdaq finished ahead by 4 points, or 0.1%, at 2754.

Speaking to reporters at the National Press Club, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said recent economic data suggests that "a self-sustaining recovery in consumer and business spending may be taking hold" and said he expects the economy to grow at a faster pace in 2011. Bernanke minimized inflation pressures, which he said, in addition to a still-high unemployment rate, continues to justify the Fed's accommodative monetary policy and asset purchase program.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks at the National Press Club on Feb. 3.

He also refuted claims that the Fed's easy monetary policy was responsible for food inflation in emerging markets.

His comments help offset concerns on the antigovernment protests in Egypt which took a more violent turn in Cairo Thursday, spurring fresh uncertainty among global investors and sending oil prices to highs not seen since 2008 earlier in the session. The March crude oil contract, however, shed 32 cents to settle at $90.54 a barrel.

Cisco (CSCO), Bank of America (BAC) and Pfizer (PFE) outperformed on the Dow, while Merck (MRK - Get Report), Microsoft (MSFT) and Coca-Cola (KO) were laggards.

Thursday saw more promising economic data. Activity within the services sector strengthened in January. The Institute for Supply Management's non-manufacturing index rose to 59.4, compared with the reading of 57 that economists had been expecting and December's level of 57.1.

Initial jobless claims fell by 42,000 to 415,000 , from 457,000 in the week ended Jan. 29. That was better than the decline of 29,000 that economists had expected with a claims target of 425,000, from the prior week's previously reported level of 454,000.

The initial claims data is particularly important ahead of Friday's January jobs report from the Labor Department. According to Briefing.com, economists anticipate a 148,000 increase to nonfarm payrolls and a 163,000 increase in private payrolls. The unemployment rate is projected to tick up to 9.5%, from 9.4%, previously. On Wednesday, Automatic Data Processing said companies added 187,000 jobs in January, exceeding expectations for job growth of 145,000.

"U.S. equity markets are jittery despite the good economic data," said PNC chief economist Stuart Hoffman, pointing to the ISM's manufacturing index, which soared to its highest level since May 2004 on Tuesday, and Thursday's strong services sector reading.

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