updated 3/24/2011 6:06:37 PM ET 2011-03-24T22:06:37

Stronger corporate earnings and signs of a stronger job market lifted stocks Thursday.

Software company Red Hat Inc., chip maker Micron Technology Inc. and Chef Boyardee maker ConAgra Foods Inc. all reported profits that beat expectations. Earnings growth has been strong across U.S. companies, which are benefiting from lower costs and higher revenue overseas.

Major Market Indices

The government also said fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, evidence that layoffs are slowing. The average number of unemployment filings over the last four weeks has dropped to its lowest level since July 2008.

Story: Weekly jobless claims tally down slightly

"Corporate earnings continue to be exceptionally strong," said Oliver Pursche, president of Gary Goldberg Financial Services. "I think the markets continue to focus on the underlying recovery of the U.S. economy."

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 84.54 points, or 0.7 percent, to close at 12,170.56. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 12.12, or 0.9 percent, to 1,309.66. The Nasdaq composite index rose 38.12 points, or 1.4 percent, to 2,736.42.

Investors turned their attention away from a long list of recent worries including high oil prices, violence in Libya and Japan's nuclear crisis. Portugal also looked closer to needing bailout funds from the European Union. Portugal's government resigned late Wednesday after lawmakers rejected a plan to cut the country's debts. European leaders are meeting to discuss the region's debt problems.

All three major indexes have gained more than 2 percent this week as Japan appeared to make progress on getting a leaking nuclear plant under control.

Among active stocks, Red Hat Inc. jumped 18 percent to $47.26, and Micron Technology Inc. rose 8 percent to $11.50 on their earnings results. ConAgra Foods Inc. rose 2 percent to $23.40.

Quotes delayed 15+ min.

Scholastic Corp., a publisher of children's books, fell 11 percent to $27.74. Weaker sales pushed it to a wider loss last quarter. The company also cut its forecast for full-year earnings, citing tighter budgets for schools.

Research in Motion Ltd., the maker of BlackBerry mobile devices, sank 10 percent in after-hours trading after issuing a forecast for earnings in the current quarter that was well below what analysts were expecting.

Two shares rose for every one that fell on the New York Stock Exchange. Consolidated trading volume was 3.9 billion shares.

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