updated 3/17/2011 4:56:19 PM ET 2011-03-17T20:56:19

Signs that the U.S. economy is improving helped investors put aside fears over Japan's nuclear crisis Thursday, if only temporarily.

The Labor Department reported that the number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell more than economists expected last week. Ongoing claims dropped to the lowest level since October 2008.

Major Market Indices

A gauge of manufacturing in the mid-Atlantic region jumped in February to the highest point since January 1984. The survey from the Federal Reserve's Philadelphia branch showed new orders soared. Production at U.S. factories, mines and utilities dipped last month but was actually higher in previous months than first estimated, according to the Federal Reserve.

"It's a reminder that the U.S. economy continues to gain momentum," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist at RidgeWorth Investments in Richmond, Va. "Economic growth leads to more spending, more production and ultimately rising profits," he said. "And at the end of the day, that's what investors buy: rising profits."

Stocks rose broadly. Nine of the 10 groups rose in the Standard & Poor's 500 index, the basis for most U.S. mutual funds. Utilities companies were the only ones to fall, continuing a 5 percent drop this week on concerns that the disaster in Japan will dim the prospects of the nuclear power industry.

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According to preliminary calculations, the Dow gained 161.29 points, or 1.39 percent, to 11,774.59. It fell 242 points Wednesday, its largest drop since August.

The Standard & Poor's 500 rose 16.84, or 1.34 percent, at 1,273.72. With Thursday's gains, the Dow and S&P 500 are up about 1 percent for the year.

The Nasdaq rose 19.23, or 0.73 percent, at 2,636.05.

FedEx Corp. rose 3.5 percent. The world's second-largest delivery company said revenue rose 11 percent in the most recent quarter, mostly due to higher shipping rates. FedEx said those higher rates may help it beat earnings forecasts in the future. United Parcel Service Inc., FedEx's rival, rose 1.5 percent.

The dollar dropped to an all-time low against the Japanese yen late Wednesday, reaching 76.53 yen to the dollar. By Thursday afternoon, the yen had weakened and was trading at 78.85 yen to the dollar. When the yen loses strength, it takes more yen to buy one dollar.

Quotes delayed 15+ min.

A stronger yen would hurt Japan's exporters, potentially dealing another problem to an economy already wracked by an earthquake, tsunami and evolving nuclear crisis.

Finance ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized countries are due to hold a conference call later Thursday to discuss ways to calm financial markets and possibly curb the yen's rise.

A separate report from the Labor Department showed consumer prices edged higher in February. The Consumer Price Index rose 0.5 percent last month, slightly stronger than forecasts. Core prices, which exclude food and fuel costs, edged up 0.2 percent, the same as the previous month.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Pain at the Pump

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  1. Randy Bish / Politicalcartoons.com
    Above: Slideshow (8) Pain at the pump
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    Slideshow (9) Trapped in the economy
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    Slideshow (7) Where's my job?

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