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Stocks close higher after 2 days of losses

Major U.S. stock indexes closed slightly higher on Thursday, rebounding from a two-day slide as investors looked ahead to the start of the next round of corporate earnings beginning next week.

Traders drew encouragement from the latest economic data, particularly a government report indicating a steep drop in applications for unemployment benefits last week. That appeared to reassure investors that the government will report solid job growth for March.

“There is a little bit of an expectation that the jobs number will come in good,” said JJ Kinahan, TD Ameritrade's chief strategist. That report is due out Friday, when markets will be closed for Good Friday.

Consumer discretionary stocks were among the biggest risers. The price of oil fell back below $50 a barrel after the U.S., five other world powers and Iran reached an agreement that could soon lift sanctions on Iran and allow the country to export more crude.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 65.06 points, or 0.4 percent, to 17,663.24. The 30-company index is down 0.3 percent for the year.

The S&P 500 index rose 7.27 points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,066.96. The index is now up 0.4 percent for the year.

The Nasdaq composite added 6.71 points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,886.94. The tech-heavy index ended is up about 3.2 percent this year.

Trading got off to a turbulent start. Major indexes briefly turned lower at midday before moving higher, a trend that held the rest of the day.

Investors have been weighing mixed economic data as they try to gauge how corporate earnings will unfold in coming weeks.

Earlier in the week, they got a dash of positive data on consumer confidence, spending and home prices, but also discouraging reports on hiring, construction spending and manufacturing.

Thursday's economic data gave investors more reasons to be optimistic.

The Labor Department said applications for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week to a seasonally adjusted 268,000. The decrease is a sign of a strong job market despite evidence of tepid economic growth in the opening months of 2015.

The four-week trend continues to go in the right direction, noted Tim Dreiling, senior portfolio manager at U.S. Bank Wealth Management.

New data on U.S. factory orders also helped lift the market. The Commerce Department said orders edged up 0.2 percent in February, breaking a six-month losing streak. Excluding volatile transportation orders, factory orders rose 0.8 percent, the most since June.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department said that the nation's trade deficit plunged 16.9 percent to $35.4 billion in February.

Financial analysts anticipate the Labor Department will report Friday that employers added 248,000 jobs last month, according to FactSet. Employers added 295,000 jobs in February.

Earnings for companies in the S&P 500 index are expected to be down 3 percent overall, according to S&P Capital IQ. That would be the first decline in quarterly earnings since the third quarter of 2009, the firm said.

Investors have reduced their expectations for corporate earnings due to concerns over the impact that falling oil prices and a strong dollar may have on big companies.

All told, nine of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 rose, led by consumer discretionary stocks. The sector also leads the index for the year with a gain of 4.8 percent.

CarMax climbed 9.3 percent after the dealership operator said that its profit rose sharply in the latest quarter as purchases of used vehicles increased. The stock climbed the most out of all the stocks in the S&P 500 index, adding $6.34 to $74.73.

U.S. government bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 1.91 percent from 1.86 percent late Wednesday.

The slide in crude oil deepened. Benchmark U.S. crude fell 95 cents to close at $49.14 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell $2.15 to close at $54.95 in London.

In other futures trading on the NYMEX, wholesale gasoline fell 7 cents to close at $1.761 a gallon, while heating oil fell 6.4 cents to close at $1.683 a gallon. Natural gas rose 10.8 cents to close at $2.713 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In metals trading, gold fell $7.30 to $1,200.90 an ounce, silver fell 36 cents to $16.70 an ounce and copper edged down a penny to $2.73 a pound.

Among stocks making big moves Thursday:

— Sequential Brands Group surged 12.6 percent on news that the brand management and licensing company will buy a majority stake in Jessica Simpson's clothing, apparel and accessories brand. The stock rose $1.34 to $12.01.

— Repros Therapeutics climbed 4.6 percent after the company said that the Food and Drug Administration accepted its application seeking approval for a testosterone drug. Repros added 39 cents to $8.88.


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