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Stocks end short week at ’09 high

NEW YORK – Stocks ended a holiday-shortened session Thursday at new highs for the year following upbeat reports on unemployment and durable goods orders.

A weaker dollar also helped buoy the market, lifting energy and materials stocks. Christmas Eve trading was extremely light.

The encouraging signs of the labor market and consumer demand helped assuage investors who were disappointed the day before by an unexpected plunge in new home sales last month.

New claims for unemployment benefits fell 28,000 to 452,000 last week, the Labor Department reported, the latest sign of improvement in the job market. It was the best figure since September 2008, just before the credit crisis peaked, and better than the 470,000 new claims economists had predicted.

Separately, the Commerce Department said orders to factories for durable goods excluding the volatile transportation sector jumped 2 percent last month, double what analysts expected.

Stocks have managed to push higher in December on optimism about the economy, but at a more subdued pace than in recent months. As the year winds to a close, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index is up 66.5 percent since hitting 12-year lows in March.

This week’s trading pattern reflected the market’s recent cautious tone. On Monday, stocks shot higher as another wave of corporate dealmaking boosted investors’ optimism. Two days later, shares barely budged after the disappointing report on housing.

Volume is likely to remain light next week, which will be shortened by the New Year’s Day holiday on Friday. Outside of readings on home prices and consumer confidence, there will be few economic reports to drive trading.

The final days of the year are often good for stocks, though. Since 1950, the S&P 500 has advanced an average of 1.5 percent during the seven trading days that start with Christmas Eve and end with the first two days in January.