NEW YORK — U.S. stocks were on pace for a fourth straight day of gains Thursday, putting the Standard & Poor’s 500 index on track to beat its record high close set last month. Investors were encouraged by a report that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits remains at a multi-year low. Hewlett-Packard rose after delivering better results, while Sears plunged after reporting that its loss doubled from a year ago. Trading remains light with many investors out on vacation.
The Dow Jones industrial average was up 81 points, or 0.5 percent, to 17,060 as of 2:25 p.m. Eastern. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose seven points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,993. That’s six points above the record high of 1,987.98 it closed at on July 24. The Nasdaq composite was up four points, or 0.1 percent, at 4,531.
JOBS, JOBS, JOBS:
Claims for unemployment benefits, a proxy for the number of people who lost their jobs and are looking for work, fell by 14,000 last week to 298,000. The less-volatile four-week average was 300,750, below the average before the Great Recession.
Bank of America rose 48 cents, or 3 percent, to $16.01 after the company announced it had reached a $16.65 billion settlement with the Justice Department over its sale of mortgage-backed securities in the months leading up to the financial crisis. The settlement is by far the largest deal the Justice Department has reached with a bank over the 2008 mortgage meltdown.
Investors were looking over minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s last meeting. The minutes, released late Wednesday, showed that a majority of Fed policymakers believe the U.S. economy is improving enough for the central bank to start raising interest rates sooner than previously thought. The debate on when the Fed should begin increasing rates, which have been near zero since 2008, has intensified in recent months as the Fed winds down its other economic stimulus.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen will give a speech at an annual conference of central bankers and other policymakers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on Friday. Investors will be watching closely for clues into her thinking on the timing of interest rate hikes.
“There’s still a lot of debate on the timing on raising interest rates, but generally I think most people are prepared for it,” said Ryan Larson, head of equity trading with RBC Global Asset Management.
Technology giant Hewlett-Packard rose $2.16, or 6.2 percent, to $37.29 after the company reported better-than-expected results and its first sales increase in nearly three years. HP has been undergoing a multi-year restructuring under CEO Meg Whitman, who laid off employees and cutting back businesses that aren’t profitable.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS:
Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar were all lower after Family Dollar rejected Dollar General’s unsolicited $9 billion buyout offer, citing antitrust concerns. Also weighing on Family Dollar’s decision was a deal Family Dollar reached with smaller discount retailer Dollar Tree last month. Dollar Tree fell 75 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $54.25, Dollar General fell 10 cents, or 0.2 percent, to $63.66 and Family Dollar fell 29 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $79.52.
Sears Holdings was down $2.13, or 6 percent, to $33.78. The owner of Sears and Kmart said it lost $573 million in the last quarter, more than double what is lost the year before. It was the struggling company’s ninth-straight quarterly loss.
BONDS AND COMMODITIES: Benchmark U.S. crude for October delivery rose 42 cents to $93.86 a barrel in New York. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note dipped to 2.40 percent from 2.43 percent the day before. In metals trading, gold fell $19.80 to $1,275 an ounce, silver fell eight cents to $19.42 an ounce and copper was little changed at $3.18 a pound.