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Stocks advanced after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke emphasized that low interest rates are still needed to support the labor market, driving the S&P 500 to another nearly four-year high.
Stocks opened higher on Monday and then padded gains throughout trading session, wiping away all of last week's losses, which were the steepest this year.
Before the opening bell, Bernanke said that continued accommodative policies were needed to confront deep problems in the jobs market. Some interpreted the statement to mean the door remains open for another round of monetary stimulus from the central bank.
"The Bernanke speech reiterated that the Fed may not do anything now, but they aren't taking further policy options off the table," said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Asset Management Group.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average advanced 160.90 points, or 1.2%, to 13241.63. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index rose 19.40 points, or 1.4%, to 1416.51 and ended the session with its highest close since May 19, 2008. The Nasdaq Composite climbed 54.65 points, or 1.8%, to 3122.57, its highest finish in more than a decade.
Health care stocks like Merck, up 1.7%, and Pfizer, up 1.6%, spearheaded Monday's gains, followed closely by technology and consumer discretionary stocks. All 10 of the S&P 500's sectors gained ground. American Express rose 2.5%, J.P. Morgan Chase rose 2.2% and United Technologies rose 2.1%.
A pair of soft readings on the domestic economy did nothing to hinder Monday's stock-market gains. Pending home sales fell slightly in February versus expectations for a modest gain. Separately, data showed business conditions in Texas-area manufacturing are expanding this month but at a slower pace than in February.
In Europe, the Stoxx Europe 600 closed up 0.9%, after Germany's Ifo Institute said its business-confidence index for March slightly exceeded expectations and rose to the highest reading in nine months.
Concerns about whether Spain can implement austerity measures eased after Germany officially backed down from its strict stance against bolstering Europe's bailout funds.
The tone for today's gains was set by "better data out of Germany, combined with plans for a larger firewall to help prevent contain problems in the euro zone," Stone said.
In corporate news, Lions Gate Entertainment climbed 4.5% after "The Hunger Games" grossed $155 million in North America over the weekend, enough to be the third-largest opening weekend ever.
Cal-Maine Foods fell 6.1% after the egg producer reported fiscal third-quarter earnings that topped estimates, though revenue fell short of expectations, and gross margins declined with rising feed costs.
Arena Pharmaceuticals surged 25% after the company said its weight-loss drug candidate lorcaserin was accepted for review by European regulators, and confirmed that a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee will meet to discuss the company's resubmitted application.
Safeway was the biggest decliner on the S&P 500, down 3.4%, after Credit Suisse cut its stock-recommendation rating to "neutral" from "outperform," citing concern that liabilities for the grocery-store operator's pension plans may affect the stock's valuation in the long term.
Buffalo Wild Wings jumped 7.3% as analysts at Stephens raised the stock's price target, noting expectations for the sports bar and grill to post strong first-quarter results.
-By Chris Dieterich, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2611; email@example.com