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Stocks Rise as Positive Data Offsets Japan Fears

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Stocks finished higher Thursday for the first time in four days, as positive U.S. economic data helped offset fears about Japan's ability to prevent a nuclear meltdown.

A day after the Dow Jones Industrial Average saw its largest decline since August 2010, the Dow added 161 points, or 1.4%, to close at 11,774. The S&P 500 rose 17 points, or 1.3%, to close at 1274 and the Nasdaq gained by 25 points, or 0.9%, at 2642.

Energy shares were among the session's biggest gainers with Chevron (CVX) among the Dow's top performers alongside Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Pfizer (PFE). McDonalds (MCD), Kraft Foods (KFT), Cisco (CSCO) and Wal-Mart (WMT) were the only components that finished in the red.

Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Avalon Partners, said there were two factors at play behind Thursday's rally.

"One, we had a rebound in the foreign markets this morning, and I think yesterday's deceleration was due to some misinterpretations of comments regarding Japan," he said. "The Japanese are continuing to try and prevent a nuclear meltdown, which I think is helping stocks, but the economic numbers today are also fortifying the market's rebound."

The Labor Department said Thursday that initial jobless claims shed 16,000 to 385,000 in the week ended March 12, from 401,000, previously. According to Briefing.com, economists had expected claims to shed 11,000 to 386,000.

Manufacturing activity in the Philadelphia region also jumped to 43.4 in March, far exceeding the reading of 28.1 that economists had expected. In February, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank's Philadelphia Fed index came in at 35.9.

A 0.1% drop in industrial production and a 0.5% increase in headline consumer inflation were disappointing reports that were largely dismissed by the market.

The Conference Board said leading indicators rose 0.8% in February, coming in just short of the jump of 1% that analysts had been expecting, according to Briefing.com. In January, leading indicators rose 0.1%.

Markets continued to keep an eye on the nuclear power plant crisis in Japan. On Thursday, Japanese military helicopters released 100 tons of sea water onto the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in an attempt to avoid a complete meltdown. According to press reports, the efforts had helped lower radiation levels slightly, though the situation remains fluid.

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