A drop in oil prices and strong bond auctions in Europe drove stocks to a slightly higher close Thursday. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose for the fourth straight day.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 21.57 points, or 0.17 percent, to end at 12,471.02 It was down most of the day, losing 64 points in the first hour of trading, following a spike in unemployment claims and a weak report on December retail sales.

Materials and industrial companies led the afternoon recovery. Caterpillar and Alcoa rose the most in the Dow. The S&P 500 finished up 3.02 points, or 0.23 percent, at 1,295.50. The Nasdaq composite index rose 13.94 points, 0.51 percent, to 2,724.70

Stocks drove higher in the last hour and a half of trading after oil prices dropped below $100 per barrel for the first time this year. Oil fell on rumors that Europe will delay an embargo on Iran. Crude plunged $2 a barrel in just eight minutes, ending at $99.10.

Also pushing stocks were strong bond auctions in Italy and Spain. European markets ended mostly higher after Italy and Spain held highly successful bond auctions, easing worries about Europe's debt crisis.

Unemployment benefits spiked last week to the highest level in six weeks, mostly because companies let go of thousands of holiday hires, the government reported. -- AP

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