U.S. stocks opened higher on Thursday in a shortened week as strong earnings and outlooks bolstered optimism about the pace of the economic recovery.

Apple Inc climbed 2.9 percent to $352.32 after its results beat Wall Street's expectations as iPhone and Mac computer sales scaled new heights while iPad supplies could not keep up with global demand.

General Electric Co edged up 0.1 percent to $20.42 after the largest U.S. conglomerate reported an 80 percent surge in first-quarter profit and raised its quarterly dividend.

Morgan Stanley, the second-largest U.S. investment bank, rose 3.1 percent to $26.85 after reporting its first-quarter results.

But gains were curbed after government data showed new U.S. claims for unemployment benefits, despite falling last week, held above the key 400,000 level.

Does it really change the trend of the employment market? No, the trend still seems to be slightly improving but at a very slow rate, said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Avalon Partners in New York.

The news today on the earnings front is quite good.

Other economic data due on Thursday includes leading indicators for March, February home prices and the Philadelphia Fed's index of business conditions for the mid-Atlantic region for April are expected at 10 a.m..

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> gained 24.14 points, or 0.19 percent, to 12,477.68. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> added 5.85 points, or 0.44 percent, to 1,336.21. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> rose 14.34 points, or 0.51 percent, to 2,816.85.

Travelers Cos Inc provided the top boost to the Dow after reporting a 30 percent rise in quarterly profit as the largest publicly traded U.S. property insurer recorded higher investment income. Shares rose 1.6 percent to $60.05.

In contrast, McDonald's Corp was the biggest laggard on the blue-chip average, off 1.5 percent to $77.19, after the hamburger chain reported a higher quarterly profit and posted March same-store sales but warned of accelerating food inflation.

Volume is expected to remain light on Thursday before a three-day weekend. U.S. markets are closed on Friday in observance of Good Friday.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Kenneth Barry)