Stocks are holding near their intraday highs during early afternoon trading on Thursday as investors continue to be heartened by better-than-expected economic reports and positive news from Wells Fargo (WFC).

The major averages jumped higher at the start of trading and have held most of their gains though the morning. Wall Street is trying to end the holiday-shortened week on a high note, with the Dow pushing back above 8,000 after a bout of profit-taking early in the week took the major averages off 2-month highs.

The Dow is currently up 177.77 at 8,014.88, while the Nasdaq posts a gain of 45.98 at 1,636.64 and the S&P 500 sees a 22.18 point gain at 847.34.

In economic news, a report from the Labor Department is helping to drive stocks higher, showing a bigger-than-expected drop in weekly jobless claims.

The report showed that jobless claims fell to 654,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 674,000. Economists had expected jobless claims to edge down to 660,000 from the 669,000 originally reported for the previous week.

However, the Labor Department also said that continuing claims rose to a new record high of 5.840 million in the week ended March 28th from the preceding week's revised level of 5.745 million.

Additionally, the Commerce Department said that the U.S. trade deficit narrowed to $26.0 billion in February from $36.2 billion in January. Economists had been expecting the trade deficit to come in at $36.0 billion.

Earlier, big name financial institution Wells Fargo released preliminary quarterly results that crushed analyst estimates. The company said it now expects to report first quarter earnings of $3 billion or $0.55 per share compared to analyst estimates of $0.23 per share.

The news is continuing to boost the broader markets as investors have taken the strength to mean an improved state for the entire financial sector.

In other corporate news, Barclays plc (BCS) is helping to lead financials higher as well after the company announced an agreement for the sale of its iShares business to Blue Sparkle LP, a new limited partnership established by CVC Capital Partners Group SICAV-FIS S.A., for a total consideration of about $4.4 billion.

Barclays noted that this deal will allow it to crystallize significant value through the realization of an expected net gain on sale of $2.2 billion, taking into consideration goodwill of $1.4 billion, from a business grown largely organically over the last five years.

Sector News

While banking stocks are continuing to turn in some of the best performances of the session, steel stocks are seeing considerable advances as well. The Amex Steel Index is illustrating these gains by showing a 6.5 percent climb on the day.

Within the index, one of the best performances is being shown by Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI), which has ridden its 10.4 percent gain to its highest level in just under three months.

Housing, trucking, and real estate stocks are also notably higher on the day, with the Philadelphia Housing Index up 6.5 percent, while the Dow Jones Trucking Index and the Morgan Stanley REIT Index are posting gains of 5.7 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively.

Stocks in the brokerage, electronic storage, and airline sectors are also showing considerable gains during Thursday's session.

At the other end of the spectrum, utility and tobacco stocks are some of the biggest losers of the session, driving the Philadelphia Utility Index down 1.2 percent, while the Amex Tobacco Index falls 1.1 percent.

Some pharmaceutical stocks are also showing weakness, driving the Amex Pharmaceutical Index down 0.9 percent.

Stocks In The News

Target (TGT) is showing a 6.1 percent rise on Thursday after the company announced a drop in same store sales that was narrower than the company had anticipated. With the advance, the stock has hit its highest level in five months.

The company's comparable-store sales for the five weeks ended April 4, 2009 declined 6.3 percent, compared to a 4.4 percent drop in the previous year. For March, Target was expecting same-store sales to decline in high-single digits, with continuing reflection of recent sales trends and volatility, as well as the impact of the shift of Easter from March 2008 into April this year.

Additionally, ING (ING) is up 18.1 percent after the company specified that de-risking measures and cost reduction initiative are on track. ING said it will reduce its geographic and business scope by building on positions in markets with the strongest franchises.

The company noted that strategic review has resulted in increasing the divestment program to a total of 10 to 15 businesses over the coming years, with total proceeds to be EUR 6 billion to EUR 8 billion, while EUR 4 billion in capital can be freed up.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart (WMT) is suffering a loss of 4 percent after the world's largest retailer reported that total company net sales for March declined 1% to $36.206 billion from $36.914 billion in the comparable period last year.

Other Markets

In overseas trading, stock markets across the Asia-Pacific region showed strong upward moves on Thursday, benefiting from some optimism about the outlook for the global economy. Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 Index closed up 3.7 percent.

The major European markets are holding near their highs of the day, with the U.K.'s FTSE 100 Index up 1.4 percent, while the French CAC 40 Index and the German DAX Index are posting gains of 1.8 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively.

In the bond market, treasuries are suffering considerable weakness on the day, holding near their lows of the day. The yield on the benchmark 10-year note is up 9.0 basis points at 2.937 percent.

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