U.S. stocks gained on Thursday, boosted by financial shares and further signs the labor market may be on the mend.

Bank shares ranked among the best performers on hopes that the European Central Bank's second long-term liquidity injection

would ease the region's financial crisis. <.EU> The S&P financial sector <.GSPF> gained 1 percent, led by a 2.4 percent gain in JPMorgan Chase & Co to $40.17.

It's going to be immediately positive for the banking system and for the credit markets in Europe, and in time, will be positive for the European economy. They are on the right road, which means that the risks associated with Europe are starting to abate, said Hugh Johnson, chief investment officer of Hugh Johnson Advisors LLC in Albany, New York.

An index of European shares <.FTEU3> rose 1.1 percent.

U.S. automakers reported surprisingly healthy sales in the face of rising gas prices. Ford Motor Co rose 2.1 percent to $12.64, while General Motors Co advanced 1.6 percent to $26.43.

While U.S. jobless claims, which fell 2,000 to 351,000 in the latest week, were viewed as positive, the news was offset by an Institute for Supply Management report showing the pace of growth in the U.S. manufacturing sector unexpectedly slowed in February.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was up 13.85 points, or 0.11 percent, at 12,965.92. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was up 6.23 points, or 0.46 percent, at 1,371.91. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was up 21.49 points, or 0.72 percent, at 2,988.38.

Retailers' shares also moved higher after mild weather helped many U.S. chains post better-than-expected monthly sales in February. Gap Inc jumped 6.8 percent to $24.96 while Buckle Inc gained 7.9 percent to $48.48. But Target Corp shed 0.03 percent to $56.67.

The S&P retail index <.RLX> gained 0.6 percent and the Morgan Stanley retail index <.MVR> rose 1.1 percent.

(Reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)