Wall Street stocks resumed their upward move into year-end on Thursday but the S&P 500 continued to churn around its 200-day moving average as concern over Europe offset better-than-expected U.S. economic data.
The gains nudged the S&P 500 back into positive territory ahead of the last trading day of the year.
Italian bond yields, which helped break a five-day rally with a sharp selloff in the last session, eased Thursday after a debt auction. But the yield on 10-year bonds hovered near 7 percent, a level markets see as a danger zone for Italian government finances.
Pending sales of existing U.S. homes surged to a 1-1/2 year high in November, offering more signs of a tentative housing recovery. The report sent the Dow Jones home builders index <.DJUSHB> up 3.5 percent.
In addition, factory activity continued to grow in the U.S. Midwest in December, as purchasing managers reported rising prices and employment, even though production eased slightly.
That is not a bad way to end the year - incrementally positive data, said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The market still looks like it wants to drift a little bit higher.
Stocks added to gains after the euro erased losses against the dollar, rebounding from a 15-month low in thin trading.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> gained 101.83 points, or 0.84 percent, to 12,253.24. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> rose 9.93 points, or 0.79 percent, to 1,259.57. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> added 17.00 points, or 0.66 percent, to 2,606.98.
Banks were the biggest gainers along with commodity-related sectors that sold off hard on Wednesday. The S&P financial index <.GSPF> rose 1.4 percent, while the capital goods sector <.GSPIC> was up 1 percent.
Concerns over Europe's sovereign debt crisis resurfaced Wednesday, sparking a 1 percent decline in major indexes. The S&P 500's slim gains for the year were erased and the index pulled back below its 200-day moving average.
The 200-day moving average has been a critical level for the S&P 500 this year as investors look for a significant break above that level before committing capital. The measure is often used to gauge the market's longer-term strength.
On the down side, initial claims for jobless benefits rose more than expected, giving a mixed labor picture, but investors said the trend was still lower.
Recent economic data, including reports on housing, have been largely positive, contributing to gains over the past month and the view that economic growth is picking up steam.
We have seen a pretty encouraging trend in the U.S. economic data over the last two months, said Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Illinois. If that trend continues that will provide good support and perhaps some upward momentum.
The next big test for markets in terms of U.S. economic data will be the December payrolls report next week.
For the year, the S&P is up 0.1 percent while the Nasdaq is down 1.7 percent and the Dow is up 5.8 percent.
Gains on the Nasdaq were limited by Amazon.com Inc
Diamond Foods Inc
Standard & Poor's placed Sears Holdings Corp's
(Reporting By Edward Krudy; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)