Stocks edge higher as unemployment claims fall

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NEW YORK (AP) ? Stocks rose in midday trading Thursday after a decline in applications for unemployment benefits and strong earnings reports from Bank of America and Morgan Stanley.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 35 points to 12,613 shortly after noon.

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits plunged last week to the lowest level since April 2008, the latest sign that the job market is strengthening. France and Spain also held successful bond auctions, easing worries about that region’s two-year-old debt crisis.

Utilities companies were among the few industries to fall, an indication that investors are becoming more comfortable owning riskier stocks. Utilities, which were the best-performing industry last year, tend to pay higher dividends and fluctuate less than companies like Caterpillar Inc. and FedEx Corp., whose fortunes are more closely tied to the economic cycle. Financial technology companies each rose 1 percent, the most of the 10 industries tracked by the S&P 500 index.

In another sign that investors are shedding low-risk assets, the dollar and Treasury prices fell. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 1.97 percent from 1.90 percent late Wednesday.

Bank of America and Morgan Stanley each rose 5 percent after reporting results that were better than analysts had expected. BofA returned to profit in the fourth quarter while Morgan Stanley’s loss was much less than forecast, thanks largely to better stock trading results.

Investors also drove up shares of Renewable Energy Group Inc., the nation’s largest producer of biodiesel, in its market debut. The stock rose 1 percent after pricing below what the Iowa company had initially expected. It was the first initial public offering of the year.

Trading was halted in shares of photography icon Eastman Kodak after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The ailing company failed to find a buyer for its trove of 1,100 digital imaging patents.

In other trading, the Standard & Poor’s 500 rose 7 points, or 0.5 percent, to 1,315. The Nasdaq composite rose 23 points, or 0.9 percent, to 2,793.

Among other stocks making large moves:

? eBay Inc. rose more than 4 percent after the online auction company beat analysts’ earnings forecasts and provided a healthy outlook for the year.

? Southwest Airlines Co. rose nearly 4 percent after it said its fourth-quarter net income and revenue jumped. Southwest said it expects strong revenue in the first quarter too, based on passenger-booking trends.

? Johnson Controls Inc., an auto parts and building equipment maker, fell 7 percent. The Milwaukee-based company reported earnings and revenue that fell short of Wall Street’s forecasts. It also cut its estimate for its fiscal year earnings, blaming weaker auto production in Europe, a lower euro and poor demand for batteries.