Stocks rose for a second straight day on Thursday on continued optimism the U.S. recession may be easing, as fourth-quarter economic data and weekly jobless claims that were in line with expectations kept the focus on positive signs earlier in the week.

Standouts in the broad run-up included shares of Best Buy , up 12 percent to $37.49 after the electronics retailer's quarterly profit topped estimates and its yearly outlook boosted optimism about consumer spending.

Leading discount retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc was among the top boosts on the Dow, rising more than 2 percent to $52.80, while the S&P retail index <.RLX> gained nearly 5 percent.

Big cap technology stocks pushed the Nasdaq into positive territory for the year, with Apple Inc leading the charge, up 2.7 percent to $109.39. Some analysts say the technology sector will be among those leading an up-turn in the economy.

We have had some positive news in the economy in terms of the housing sector, said Craig Hester, CEO of Hester Capital Management in Austin, Texas, referring to data on Wednesday showing a rebound in new home sales.

Sentiment has noticeably improved from where it was. I don't think in my career I'd ever heard people have the fear in their voices that I was hearing.

Recent better-than-expected housing and retail sales data has given rise to hopes that the recession-stricken economy is starting to show signs of life.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> jumped 160.65 points, or 2.07 percent, to 7,910.46. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> spiked 17.22 points, or 2.12 percent, to 831.10. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> surged 47.67 points, or 3.12 percent, to 1,576.62.

At the current pace, the S&P 500 could have its biggest monthly gain in 22 years, as stocks extend a three-week rally off 12-year lows.

Shares of natural resources companies rose along with higher commodity prices on Thursday. Shares of steel maker Nucor rose nearly 5 percent to $41.03 and U.S. Steel Corp was up 5.5 percent to $24.76.

Investors were relieved to see fair demand for $24 billion of U.S. debt offered after a poor auction a day earlier raised fears the government would have trouble funding its plans to help the economy recover.

Shares of banks pared losses after the auction, with JPMorgan Chase & Co down 1 percent to $28.27, having fallen as low as $27.65, while the KBW bank index <.BKX> fell 0.1 percent.

Government data showed the U.S. economy contracted slightly less than expected in the fourth quarter, although corporate profits in the same quarter plunged by the biggest margin since 1994. The number of workers collecting state unemployment benefits rose to a record high in the latest week.

(Editing by Leslie Adler)