Stocks Tick Higher as Traders Digest Data, Greek Deal

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Wall Street eked out small gains on Thursday as market participants mulled a deal between Greece and its rescuers aimed at averting a default and stronger-than-expected U.S. economic data.

Today's Markets

The Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 6.5 points, or 0.05%, to 12890, the S&P 500 gained 2 points, or 0.15%, to 1352 and the Nasdaq Composite gained 11.4 points, or 0.39%, to 2927.

The markets have performed very strongly this year. Indeed, the Dow closed at its highest level since May 2008, while the broader S&P 500 ended at its highest mark since July of last year.

Technology shares performed in the best on the day. Indeed, the technology-heavy Nasdaq posted the biggest gains out of the major market averages. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) shares zoomed more than 3% higher on an upgrade and talk the next iteration of the iPad may come out in early March. The technology heavyweight surpassed ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) as the biggest publicly traded company in the U.S. by market capitalization.

Greek political leaders reached an agreement with the so-called Troika, which represents the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank, on fresh austerity measures, according to a message on Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos' Twitter account. Although details were still emerging, this would be a major step in securing a $172 billion bailout.

The stakes are high for the country: If Greece doesn't receive the first tranche of rescue funds by late March, it is very likely to default, analysts have said. Such an event could send shockwaves through European financial markets and potentially imperil much larger and systemically important countries like Italy and Spain.

Traders also reacted positively to encouraging U.S. economic data.

New claims for unemployment benefits fell to 358,000 last week from an upwardly revised 373,000 the week prior. Economists were expecting a reading of 370,000. The markets got much better-than-expected data on the jobs market last week, showing the economy added 243,000 jobs, pushing the unemployment rate down to 8.3%.

"For those looking to the labor market as the proverbial last piece of the puzzle, a [358,000] initial jobless claims number should serve as evidence that the final piece of the recovery puzzle is moving into place," Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG wrote in a note to clients.

Also on the European front, the European Central Bank kept its main refinancing rate at a record low of 1% for the second month in a row on Thursday in a move that was anticipated by economists. The central bank has been working to shore up the eurozone’s economy in light of headwinds from the debt crisis.

Separately, the Bank of England said it will hold its key interest rate at 0.5% and boost its asset purchases by $79 billion as it looks to bolster the U.K.’s economy. Both moves were widely expected by economists.

The euro climbed 0.12% to $1.3277, while the U.S. dollar slipped 0.41% against a basket of six world currencies tracked by the dollar index.

In corporate news, Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) revealed quarterly profits and sales that came in ahead of Wall Street's estimates after the closing bell on Wednesday.

Commodities were mostly in the green tracking a weaker U.S. dollar. Futures that are traded in dollar terms generally move in the opposite direction of the greenback because the underlying contract becomes cheaper as it depreciates.

The benchmark crude oil contract traded in New York climbed $1.13, or 1.1%, to $99.84 a barrel. Wholesale RBOB gasoline gained 1.3% to $3.013 a gallon. In metals, gold was up $9.90, or 0.57%, to $1,741 a troy ounce.

Foreign Markets 

European blue chips climbed 0.37%, the English FTSE 100 rose 0.33% to 5895 and the German DAX tacked on 0.59% to 6789.

In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 fell 0.15% to 9002 and the Chinese Hang Seng slipped 0.04% to 21010.