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Stocks rally in choppy trading session

Stocks rallied in choppy trade Thursday as another batch of positive earnings and a strong housing report put equities on track for a third straight day of gains.

While most corporate results topped expectations, some high-profile misses, including Exxon and Aetna, kept a lid on gains.

Pending home sales rose to a near two-year high in March, but investors also had to contend with data showing a stumbling labor recovery as weekly initial jobless claims fell slightly but missed forecasts.

With 254 companies in the S&P 500 reporting, more than 72 percent have topped estimates, according to Thomson Reuters data. A big beat from Apple Inc drove Wednesday's rally, which gave the Nasdaq its best day of the year.

Weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp and online jobs recruiter Monster Worldwide Inc both had higher-than expected earnings. Lockheed added 1 percent to $91.91 and Monster jumped 16.7 percent to $9.52.

But Exxon Mobil Corp and Aetna Inc reported a drop in profits from the year-ago quarter, while United Parcel Service Inc's revenues missed Wall Street's expectations.

Exxon fell 1.1 percent to $85.93, Aetna slid 8.8 percent to $45 and UPS lost 3 percent to $77.27.

"These are among the first blue chips to really miss this season, and that's putting some pressure on us," said Timothy Hoyle, director of research at Haverford Investments in Radnor, Pennsylvania.

"I think earnings are enough to support a higher market, perhaps up to 1,450 (for the S&P), but the focus today is on who is and isn't delivering, compared to expectations."

Reuters contributed to this report.