US stocks close solidly higher, led by gains in banks; investors wait for ECB, Federal Reserve

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NEW YORK — Stocks started off December on a strong note, helped by improving economic data from Japan and Europe as well as hopes that the European Central Bank will expand its stimulus program. Trading remained relatively quiet ahead of the release later this week of the U.S. government's monthly jobs survey and a Federal Reserve meeting later this month.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 168.43 points, or 1 percent, to 17,888.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 22.22 points, or 1.1 percent, to 2,102.63 and the Nasdaq composite rose 47.64 points, or 0.9 percent, to 5,156.31.

Financial stocks were among the biggest gainers, helped by the prospect of higher interest rates. Banks are more profitable when interest rates rise because they can charge more to lend. JPMorgan Chase rose 93 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $67.61. Goldman Sachs rose $3.05, or 1.6 percent, to $193.07 and Bank of America rose 38 cents, or 2.2 percent, to $17.81.

Investors are keyed into both the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve this month. Policy decisions from both central banks will be important in determining the fate of the market in the last month of 2015.

"As it has been most of this year, central banks are still running the show," said Samantha Azzarello, global market strategist at J.P. Morgan Funds.

The ECB will decide on Thursday whether to expand its economic stimulus program, which functions similarly to the bond-buying program the Fed used after the financial crisis to keep long-term interest rates low. ECB head Mario Draghi has signaled the bank could expand its bond-buying program or even cut interest rates further.

Investors are so certain that Draghi will expand his program that data out Tuesday showing the unemployment rate in the 19-country eurozone edged down to a four-year low of 10.7 percent in October is not seen as likely to derail those measures.

In the U.S., most of the focus will be on the November job's report, to be released Friday. Expectations are high. Economists expect that U.S. employers added 271,000 jobs last month, according to FactSet. The unemployment rate is expected remain at 5 percent.

This jobs report comes shortly before the Fed's two-day meeting later this month, where policymakers will debate moving interest rates in the opposite direction of the ECB: higher. Securities that allow investors to bet on which way the Fed will move rates are forecasting a 79 percent probability that the Fed will tighten. Unless Friday's jobs report is horrific, that is unlikely to change.

"Generally the last couple of weeks have been very quiet. We've been and will be in a holding pattern head of the Fed's December meeting," said Ryan Larson, head of equity trading with RBC Global Asset Management.

In energy markets, benchmark U.S. crude rose 20 cents to $41.85 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, which is used to price oil internationally, lost 17 cents to $44.44 a barrel in London. Heating oil rose a cent to $1.369 a gallon, wholesale gasoline rose six cents to $1.363 a gallon and natural gas was roughly unchanged at $2.231 per thousand cubic feet.

U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.14 percent from 2.21 percent. The U.S. dollar slipped to 122.84 yen from 123.25 yen on Monday on the Japanese economic data. The euro rose to $1.0631 from $1.0572.

Gold fell $1.80, or 0.2 percent, to $1,063.50 an ounce, silver was roughly unchanged at $14.08 an ounce and copper rose two cents, or 1 percent, to $2.072 a pound.

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