Updated with closing stock prices.



) -- Stock market gains were nearly halved in the final hour of trading Thursday, but it was still a decent day at the office. It's the power of people getting off the fence, said one market observer as the major indices rose to levels not seen in months earlier in the session.


Dow Jones Industrial Average

rose 83.74 points, or 0.9%, to 9154.46, and the

S&P 500

tacked on 11.6 points, or 1.2%, to 986.75. The

Nasdaq Composite

gained 16.54 points, or 0.8%, to 1984.3.

Helping stocks along were a

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

upgrade, improved jobless claims and more earnings.

But President Obama said late in the day

that second quarter GDP figures

due out Friday would indicate a contraction and that job losses remained a "huge" problem, taking some steam out of the day's rally.

After a mixed close on Tuesday and mild losses on Wednesday, market watchers were beginning to wonder if "less bad" economic data and better-than-expected but still-not-exactly-good earnings were enough to maintain the energy that drove stocks higher in July. But the bulls came back refreshed early Thursday.

"When it's a pullback, we say it's gone too far too fast, and when it's a rally, we say it's a buying opportunity. But the truth is there are so many skeptics on the sideline, and with each passing day, those skeptics give up, throw in the towel and come into the market," says Hugh Johnson, CIO of Illington Johnson Advisers. "It's just the force of fence-sitters in the early stages of a bull market."

Helping some sitters off the fence, GE shares gained 7% to $13.12 after Goldman Sachs upgraded the stock to buy and raised its price target on a decreased likelihood that it will have to separate from its GE Capital business.

"GE is a stock that has seen a lot of downward selling pressure; its stock price has gone down to levels that at this point look like a bargain," says Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global insight. "That probably did help

the overall market; it's the realization that there are stocks out there with good valuations, and it's a good time to buy them."

Click below to hear Bethune discuss GE and another headline-maker of the day, the latest jobless claims numbers.

The Labor Department said there were 584,000 new jobless claims last week, up from an upwardly revised 559,000 the week prior and amid expectations for 575,000. However, the four-week moving average fell by 8,250 to 559,000, the lowest reading since January, and continuing claims fell for the third straight week to 6.2 million.

"The truth is that the trend is encouraging," says Johnson. "It's very consistent with everything you hear or see, which is that the recession is getting less worse and employment conditions are getting less worse. It's consistent with this view that we're in a cyclical bull market that will be accompanied by a cyclical recovery in the economy."

The positive vibes began before the U.S. market opened as China's central bank said it would use

"market tools"

to guide growth in money supply and lending, affirming a "moderately loose" monetary policy to aid economic recovery.

Also, upbeat earnings from companies like

Honda Motor

(HMC) - Get Report




-- which posted a surprise profit in the last quarter -- helped to lift stocks overseas.

A slew of new earnings offered a mixed picture. Relatively new Dow component


(TRV) - Get Report

said profit fell 21%, in line with estimates, but raised its

full-year outlook

for operating income. Shares were down 1.6%, at $41.94.



reported an unexpected second-quarter profit with help from the sale of its satellite business, sending shares up 7.5% to $2.74.

On the other hand,

Dow Chemical

(DOW) - Get Report

said it

swung to a loss

in the second quarter on charges and a 31% decrease in sales. Nonetheless, shares rose 6.2% to $21.53.

Also, Europe's largest oil company,

Royal Dutch Shell


, reported a 67% drop in second-quarter profit on falling energy prices and demand. "Conditions are likely to remain challenging for some time, and we are not banking on a quick recovery," said CEO Peter Voser in a statement Thursday.

But crude oil futures regained $3.57 to $64.58 after falling $3.88 Wednesday on greater-than-expected increases in stockpiles.

In other news,


(C) - Get Report

agreed to sell its asset management operations in Japan to

Sumitomo Trust and Banking

in a deal that values the business at 120 billion yen ($1.26 billion). Shares fell 2.5% to $3.14.



(MRK) - Get Report

agreed to sell its 50% interest in the Merial animal health joint venture for $4 billion in cash to its venture partner


(SNY) - Get Report

. Merck shares added 0.2% to $29.94, while Sanofi-Aventis edged down 0.4%, to $32.85.

Stocks overseas were modestly higher. In Europe, Frankfurt's DAX and London's FTSE 100 were up 1.7% and 1.9%, respectively. In Asia, Hong Kong's Hang Seng and Japan's Nikkei added a half percentage point each.

Longer-dated Treasuries were rising in price, falling in yield. The 10-year was gaining 12/32 to yield 3.62%, while the 30-year tacked on 1-12/32, yielding 4.43%.

-- Reported by Elizabeth Trotta in New York