Wall Street stocks rose on Thursday, with the Dow rebounding from its sharpest loss of the year, but gains were limited despite signs of an improving U.S. economy.

Data showed unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week to a near four-year low, suggesting the labor market was finally strengthening.

Housing starts rose 1.5 percent to an annual rate of 699,000 units last month, beating forecasts, while the pace of factory activity in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region ticked up in January as new orders picked up.

Everything is stronger than expected. Metric after metric, uniformly, is doing better, and barring any unforeseen problems from Europe it appears we're in a self-sustaining cycle of growth. We're better than where we were, but not as good as we'd hope, said Jim Awad, managing director at Zephyr Management in New York.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was up 59.79 points, or 0.47 percent, at 12,840.74. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was up 3.45 points, or 0.26 percent, at 1,346.68. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was up 7.95 points, or 0.27 percent, at 2,923.78.

Apple Inc which has been largely dictating the direction of the market, was off 1.3 percent at $490.35. Volume topped 13 million shares in less than an hour into trading, near its 50-day daily average.

Authorities have ordered retailers in more Chinese cities to remove take Apple Inc iPad tablets off shelves, according to reports, due to a trademark battle between a Chinese technology firm and Apple.

A warning from Moody's about Europe capped market gains. The rating service said it may cut the credit ratings of 17 global and 114 European financial institutions. Among the banks were Morgan Stanley , Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Bank of America Corp .

Morgan Stanley was down 0.7 percent at $18.84 and Bank of America fell 1.1 percent to $7.87.

The Dow end down nearly 0.8 percent on Wednesday for its biggest loss of the year.

(Reporting by Angela Moon; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)