By STEVE ROTHWELL and BERNARD CONDONNEW YORK (AP) a¿¿ The Dow Jones industrial average finished above 16,000 for the first time Thursday as the blue-chip index races toward its best performance in a decade. The Dow has been on fire lately, propelled higher by a combination of solid corporate earnings, a steadily strengthening economy and easy-money policies from the Federal Reserve. Since the start of the year, the Dow is up 22 percent and has now topped three 1,000 point milestones in 10 months. It eclipsed 14,000 in February and 15,000 in May. If it holds onto its gains, it would notch its strongest performance since 2003. "The market has come a long way," said Dan Seiver, an economist at San Diego State University. "It's a sign of just how far financial markets have recovered." The Dow has more than tripled since its bear market low in March 2009. Back then, the country was in the worst downturn since the Great Depression, the housing market had collapsed and individual investors had abandoned stocks. Now, with the economy recovering and confidence returning, small investors are coming back in. "People are getting out of bonds into stocks," said Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities. "We're in the early stages of a recovery." The Dow rose 109.17 points, or 0.7 percent, to close at 16,009.99 Thursday. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 14.48 points, or 0.8 percent, to 1,795.85. The Nasdaq composite rose 47.88 points, or 1.2 percent, to 3,969.15. In a sign that investors are taking on more risk, small-company stocks rose at a much faster pace than the rest of the market. The Russell 2000 index jumped 19.83 points, or 1.8 percent, to 1,119.62. The Labor Department reported before the market opened that applications for unemployment benefits dropped last week to the lowest level since September. The number of applications is close to where it was before the Great Recession.