Stock markets gain as Greek crisis nears deadline

EILEEN AJ CONNELLY AP Business Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Stocks rose Thursday as a small increase in applications for unemployment benefits last week failed to dampen optimism over progress toward easing Greece's debt burden.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 51 points, or 0.4 percent, at 12,888 in the first 45 minutes of trading. The Standard & Poor's 500 index gained 8 to 1,360. The Nasdaq composite index rose 18 at 2,953.

The market was headed for its second day of gains following a 203-point plunge in the Dow Tuesday, the first triple-digit loss for the index since the start of the year.

The Labor Department said early Thursday that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose slightly more than expected last week. The four-week average remained near a four-year low, however, and applications are down 14 percent since October.

The government will issue its February jobs report on Friday.

Investors are keeping their eyes on a 3 p.m. EST deadline for private investors to decide whether to swap $140 billion in Greek government bonds for new ones worth much less. If not enough private bondholders take part in the exchange, Greece could default in the next two weeks.

Athens won't release final results until Friday morning, but early signs are indicating that the swap will succeed. Stocks rose around the world in response.

In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British stocks rose 1 percent. Germany's DAX rose 1.4 percent and the CAC-40 in France rose 1.4 percent. The euro also rose against the dollar.

Earlier in Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 index climbed 2 percent. Hong Kong's Hang Seng jumped 1.3 percent and mainland China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index rose 1.1 percent.

Among stocks making big moves:

-- Coach Inc. jumped 4.5 percent after the luxury accessories maker said it is sticking to its long-term sales goals.

-- McDonald's Corp. lost more than 3 percent after reporting slower growth in February.

-- American International Group Inc. slid 3.5 percent as the U.S. government moved to sell $6 billion worth of the bailed out insurer's common stock.