Updated from 4:12 p.m. EDT

Stocks in New York locked in a third consecutive day of gains Thursday, with the indices moving 3% to 4% higher, amid a mix of merger and economic news.

Adding to the day's buzz, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's testified to the Senate budget committee, and the bane of the investment community, Ponzi scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff, pleaded guilty to 11 felony charges.

Led by General Motors ( GM), General Electric ( GE), financials and pharma, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 239.66, or 3.46%, to 7170.06, and the S&P 500 climbed 29.38 points, or 4.1%, to 750.74. The Nasdaq tacked on 54.46 points, or 4%, to 1426.10.

If stocks were to rally 20% off of recent lows, it would still only take us back to a level that was formerly the support for those indices for several months, says Richard Sparks, senior equities analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research.

"It would seem very significant, but in the context of a bear market, it's no more than a bounce -- it would be the fourth 20%-plus rally since October if it were to occur," says Sparks. "We're either at the beginning of a standard bear market bounce, or we've got people who really are betting that things are going to be a lot better in six to nine months."

GE rose 12.7% to $9.57, despite Standard & Poor's having cut its rating. Investors seemed pleased, or perhaps relieved, that the cut and short-term outlook -- deemed stable -- were not as severe as expected.

"There are some people saying the GE ratings downgrade is removing some uncertainty from that situation and is actually helping the overall market," says Sparks. "It was widely expected, but the short-term outlook is stable, and now the downgrade is behind us."

Financials were still ahead of the rise, with Dow components Bank of America ( BAC)and JPMorgan ( JPM) adding 18.7% and 13.7%, respectively, and the KBW Bank Index up 11.2%.

Pfizer ( PFE) was also 9.6% higher, at $14.02, after the pharma giant reported that trial results for its drug Sutent in pancreatic cancer were positive enough to stop the study early in order to allow those in the non-Sutent arm access to the drug.

Then, making good on earlier reports, Swiss pharma company Roche agreed to buy the remaining shares of Genentech ( DNA) for $95 apiece, or $46.8 billion.

On a smaller scale, Gilead Sciences ( GILD) is picking up CV Therapeutics ( CVTX) in a $1.4 billion cash deal.

Genentech added 1.9% to $93.92, Gilead ticked up 0.9%, and CV Therapeutics surged 31.50%.

Those deals come after a Merck ( MRK)/ Schering Plough ( SGP) pharmaceutical merger announcement earlier in the week.

Meanwhile, a bit of hope for the auto industry restructurings came out of General Motors ( GM). CNBC reported that the company said it doesn't need $2 billion of the total government aid it previously requested. Its shares also surged 17.2% to $2.18.

As if that weren't enough, investors had a new slate of economic data to chew on. New claims for unemployment came in at 654,000, for the week ended March 7 vs. 645,000 a week prior and the expectation for 644,000.

Retail sales fell 0.1% in February compared to a 1.8% increase in January, but the drop was not as severe as expected. Excluding auto, retail sales increased 07% in February, also better than expected.

Wall Street has been waiting for more details from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the government's plan to relieve banks of toxic assets that are distressing balance sheets. Geithner, who earlier in the week said more details were on the way, delivered some during his testimony in front of the Senate budget committee today.

Elsewhere, infamous financier Bernard Madoff Bernard Madoff">formally pled guilty to all 11 felony charges related to a $50 billion Ponzi scheme at the New York federal courthouse Thursday. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin accepted the plea, and Madoff is now in custody, and will be sentenced on June 16.

In commodities, oil spiked today on rumors that Russia, the world's second-largest oil producer, may enact production cuts similar to those in place by OPEC. Crude rose $4.70 to settle at $47.03 a barrel, while gold added $13.30 to $924 an ounce.

Longer-dated Treasuries were recently rising. The 10-year note was adding 3/32 to yield 2.9%, and the 30-year was gaining 13/32, yielding 3.6%. The dollar was recently slightly weaker vs. yen and weaker vs. the euro and pound.

Stocks overseas were mixed. The FTSE in London and DAX in Frankfurt were rising 0.5% and 1.1%, respectively. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei fell 2.4%, but Hong Kong's Hang Seng moved up 0.6%.

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