Stocks finish higher after late-day recovery

NEW YORK (AP) — A drop in oil prices and strong bond auctions in Europe drove stocks to a slightly higher close Thursday. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose for the fourth straight day.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 21.57 points, or 0.2 percent, to end at 12,471.02. It was down most of the day, losing 64 points in the first hour of trading, following a spike in unemployment claims and a weak report on December retail sales.

Materials and industrial companies led the afternoon recovery. Caterpillar and Alcoa rose the most in the Dow. The S&P 500 finished up 3.02 points, or 0.2 percent, at 1,295.50. The Nasdaq composite rose 13.94 points, 0.5 percent, to 2,724.70

Stocks drove higher in the last hour and a half of trading after oil prices dropped below $100 per barrel for the first time this year. Oil fell on rumors Europe will delay an embargo on Iran. Crude plunged $2 a barrel in just eight minutes, ending at $99.

Also pushing stocks were strong bond auctions in Italy and Spain. European markets ended mostly higher rose after Italy and Spain held highly successful bond auctions, easing worries about Europe’s debt crisis. Italy’s benchmark stock index rose 2.1 percent.

In Italy’s first bond auction of the new year, the country was able to sell one-year bonds at a rate of just 2.735 percent, less than half the 5.95 percent rate it had to pay last month. That’s a signal that investors are becoming more confident in Italy’s ability to pay its debts.

Spain was able to raise double the amount of money it had sought to raise in its own bond sale as demand for its debt was strong. Both auctions were seen as important tests of investor sentiment.

Investors have been worried that Italy and Spain, the third- and fourth-largest countries in the euro area, might get dragged into the region’s debt crisis. Greece, Ireland and Portugal have been forced to get relief from their lenders after their borrowing costs spiked to levels the countries could no longer afford.

The euro rose nearly a penny against the dollar, to $1.28, as worries eased about Europe’s financial woes. The currency, which is shared by 17 European countries, fell to a 16-month low against the dollar the day before.

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