NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks edged higher after a pair of lackluster economic reports eased concern that the Federal Reserve would pull back on its economic stimulus.
The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits rose and an initial estimate of first-quarter economic growth was revised slightly lower. That suggests the U.S. economy may still need some time to recover from its funk and that the Fed will keep up its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases.
The gain in the Standard & Poor's 500 index was led by banking and insurance stocks.
Utilities stocks also rose on Wall Street after Berkshire Hathaway's MidAmerican Energy agreed to buy NV Energy, a Nevada-based electric and natural gas company, for $5.6 billion.
The news gave a boost to an industry sector that has been crushed this month after the rich dividend-paying stocks fell out of favor with investors.
NV Energy surged $4.30, or 22 percent, to $23.58, leading a broad advance in utility companies. Northeast Utilities rose 67 cents, or 1.6 percent, $42.39. Wisconsin Energy climbed 59 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $41.45.
The S&P 500 utilities index climbed for the first day in six. It was up 0.9 percent by noon. It's still down 8.5 percent this month.
The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid rose last week, a sign layoffs have increased, the Labor Department said Thursday. Claims for unemployment aid rose 10,000 last week to 354,000. The government also lowered its estimate for U.S. economic growth in the first three months of the year to 2.4 percent from 2.5 percent.
Trading has been choppy on Wall Street this week as investors wrestle with the question of whether the Fed will ease its economic stimulus. Minutes released last week from the Fed's last policy meeting showed that some central bank officials favored slowing the purchases as early as next month, if the economy improves enough. The program has been a major factor supporting a rally in stocks by encouraging investors to buy riskier assets.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 106 points Tuesday, then fell by the same amount Wednesday, leading some market watchers to ask whether the rally that has pushed the Dow and S&P 500 index to record levels may be fizzling out.
"I don't think that stocks are going to trade higher than where they are right now," said Scott Wren, a senior equity strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors. "We've pretty much seen the gains for the year."
The Dow rose 72 points, or 0.5 percent, to 15,374 points in the first hour of trading. The S&P 500 index climbed 10 points, or 0.6 percent, to 1,658. The Nasdaq composite index rose 27 points, or 0.7 percent, to 3,494.
In commodities trading, oil rose half a cent to $93.58 a barrel. Gold rose $23.40, or 1.7 percent, to $1,414.10 an ounce. The dollar fell against the euro and the Japanese yen.
In government bond trading, the yield on the 10-year note edged up to 2.13 percent from 2.12 percent.
Among other stocks making big moves:
— Clearwire, a wireless network operator, surged 83 cents, or 23.7 percent, to $4.30 after satellite TV operator Dish Network raised its bid for the company to $6.9 billion.
— EMC, a data storage equipment maker, rose $1.25, or 5.3 percent, to $24.91 after the company said it will ramp up its stock buyback program and begin paying a quarterly dividend.
— Big Lots, a discount store chain, fell $3.05, or 8 percent, to $35.35 after the company reported a 21 percent drop in quarterly income and lowered its full-year revenue forecast.