S&P is set to finish higher for the year

US stocks rose yesterday, putting the S&P 500 on the cusp of finishing out the year higher as another decline in jobless claims pointed to further improvement in the labour market.

The S&P rose for a third day in seasonally light volume that has contributed to sharp swings recently. With the benchmark index near break-even year-to-date and the Dow already higher or 2011, US stocks appeared on track to outperform such major overseas markets as China, Brazil and Europe, all of which are down more than 10 per cent year-to-date.

The latest bit of optimism on Wall Street came from a drop in weekly claims for jobless benefits to a three and a half year low. Also helping equities, US consumer sentiment improved in December, hitting its highest level in six months as Americans felt better about the economy’s prospects.

Cyclicals, which have come under pressure recent from uncertainties over global growth, were the day’s top gainers, with financials gaining 2.1 per cent, followed by energy up 1.1 per cent and materials, up 0.9 per cent.

Consumer staples, considered a defensive play, was the weakest sector, falling 0.2 per cent.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 61.84 points, or 0.51 per cent, at 12,169.58. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was up 10.29 points, or 0.83 per cent, at 1,254.01. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 21.48 points, or 0.83 per cent, at 2,599.45.

The CBOE Volatility index, a gauge of investor fear, fell 1.4 per cent and is down about 13 per cent so far this week, putting it on track for four weeks of declines.

Recent gains have lifted the S&P 500 above its 50-day moving average, though the index has run into trouble when it sought to move above its 200-day moving average, currently around 1,260. The levels have been key for the market this year.

Lower volume ahead of the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays has left the market susceptible to the heightened volatility this week.

Micron Technology jumped 15.7 per cent as investors looked past limp quarterly results announced late Wednesday and focused on a potential 2012 rebound in long-stagnant memory chip demand and prices.

Tibco Software climbed eight per cent after the business software maker forecast first-quarter revenue above estimates and said fourth-quarter profit and revenues soared.