Stocks creep higher on encouraging news 

click to enlarge Trader Damian Bagarozza, center, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. U.S. stocks are opening higher a day after the Federal Reserve made clear it would keep interest rates at record lows for a while. - AP PHOTO/RICHARD DREW
  • AP Photo/Richard Drew
  • Trader Damian Bagarozza, center, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. U.S. stocks are opening higher a day after the Federal Reserve made clear it would keep interest rates at record lows for a while.

The U.S. stock market climbed to new record highs Thursday as investors received more encouraging news on the economy. The slight gains come a day after the Federal Reserve signaled that it's in no rush to raise interest rates.

KEEPING SCORE: As of 2:30 p.m. Eastern time, the Standard & Poor's 500 index was up eight points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,010. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 96 points, or 0.6 percent, to 17,253. Both major indexes surpassed previous record highs. The Nasdaq composite climbed 28 points, or 0.6 percent, to 4,589.

JOBS: Fewer Americans filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits last week, according to the Labor Department. Weekly applications fell 36,000 to 280,000, well below economists' forecasts. The four-week average, a less-volatile measure, also dropped.

GOING UP: "The question isn't 'Why are we up today?'" said Dan Veru, chief investment officer at Palisade Capital Partners in New York. "It's 'Why aren't we up a lot more?' What you're seeing is the U.S. economy growing at a modest pace, not too hot and not too cold." It's an environment that allows the Federal Reserve to stick to a policy that coaxes businesses to borrow and spend and could fuel further gains for the stock market.

OVERSEAS: In Europe, Germany's DAX advanced 1.4 percent, and France's CAC 40 gained 0.8 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 added 0.6 percent.

AYE OR NAY: Scotland opened polling stations on Thursday for a referendum on whether the country will leave the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and become an independent state. The first exit polls will be released after voting closes at 10 p.m. local time, or 2100 GMT. Opinion polls have suggested the "Yes" campaign favoring independence is neck and neck with the "No" campaign that wants Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom.

ONE VIEW: "A 'yes' vote is likely to weigh heavily on the sterling and equities. A 'no' vote should result in a relief rally and is likely to be positive for the sterling and equities," said IG strategist Stan Shamu in a commentary. The pound was trading at a two-year high against the euro at €1.27, and holding steady against the dollar at $1.64.

BIG DEBUT: Alibaba Group is expected to wrap up its mammoth initial public offering later Thursday, then make its debut on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday under the symbol "BABA." The Chinese e-commerce company could raise as much as $21.8 billion from institutional investors, making it the largest IPO on record in the U.S.

WRONG WAY: Rite Aid plunged 20 percent after it cut its profit forecasts for the full year, laying part of the blame on higher costs for generic drugs. The drugstore chain still expects to post sales of $26 billion this year. Rite Aid's stock lost $1.33 to $5.31.

HIGHER PROFIT: ConAgra said its quarterly profits nearly tripled, sending its stock up $1.40, or 4 percent, to $33.42. Sales for the company behind Chef Boyardee canned pasta and Hebrew National hot dogs were flat but interest payments and other costs fell.

FED WATCH: On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve maintained its stance of keeping short-term interest rates near zero for a "considerable time." But it did raise its estimate for what the Fed's benchmark interest rate could be at the end of 2015: to 1.38 percent, up from its last estimate of 1.13 percent. In the depths of the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed cut its benchmark rate to a range near zero and has kept it there ever since.

Most economists expect the first rate increase to come by the middle of next year. Before the Fed's meeting, many in the market speculated that the Fed might signal an earlier start.

ASIA'S DAY: Hong Kong's Hang Seng finished 0.9 percent lower and South Korea's Kospi dropped 0.7 percent. Japan's Nikkei 225 outperformed, gaining 1 percent as the yen traded at a six-year low against the dollar. Markets in mainland China, India and Southeast Asia also rose.

OIL: Benchmark U.S. crude fell $1.27 to $93.16 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. On Wednesday, the Energy Department reported a 3.7 million barrel increase in U.S. crude inventories last week. Most analysts had expected a decline, typical for this time of year.

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