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U.S. stocks edge higher; Pharmacyclics jumps on AbbVie bid

U.S. stocks edged higher on Thursday, led by gains for utilities and health care companies. Pharmacyclics, a pharmaceutical company that makes cancer drug Imbruvica, surged after AbbVie said it would acquire the company for $21 billion.

KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose nearly four points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,102 as of 11:53 a.m. Eastern. The Dow Jones industrial average climbed 44 points, or 0.2 percent, to 18,141. The Nasdaq composite gained 19 points, or 0.4 percent, to 4,986.

DRUG BOOST: Pharmacyclics rose $24.37, or 10.6 percent, to $254.76 after AbbVie said it would acquire the company for about $21 billion. It's AbbVie's first attempt at a major deal since walking away from a $55 billion takeover of Shire last fall. AbbVie's stock fell $1.82, or 3 percent, to $58.35.

NO JOY: The shares of Joy Global, a manufacturer of mining equipment, fell the most in the S&P 500. The stock slumped $2.81, or 6.7 percent, to $39.32 after the company said that the worldwide slump in commodity prices continues to hurt its business.

BRIGHTER EUROPE: European stock markets rose strongly Thursday as the European Central Bank upgraded its growth forecast for the eurozone in 2015 to 1.5 percent from 1.0 percent. ECB President Mario Draghi said that the bank's planned 1 trillion euro ($1.1 trillion) stimulus program will start on March 9. The stimulus is designed to keep long-term interest rates low to spur growth and get inflation back toward the ECB's target.

EUROPE'S DAY: In Europe, France's CAC-40 rose 1.1 percent while Germany's DAX climbed 1.2 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 rose 0. percent.

HIRING SITUATION: The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits rose last week to the highest level since May, though the pace of applications remains at a level consistent with steady hiring. Weekly applications rose 7,000 to a seasonally adjusted 320,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, increased 10,250 to 304,750, a six-week high.

On Friday, investors will watch for the release of February's U.S. nonfarm payrolls figures. Economists surveyed forecast the U.S. added 250,000 jobs last month, according to FactSet.

THE QUOTE: U.S. stocks are close to record levels and have more than tripled since bottoming out in March, 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis and the deep recession that followed it. The tepid global growth picture, means that any further gains from here are likely to be limited, says Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer at Wilmington Trust.

"Most of the big gains in equities are behind us now," says Roth. "It would seem very unlikely that we could string together multiple years where we could achieve anything better than high single digit returns."

CHINA TARGET: Earlier in Asia, Chinese markets fell after the communist leaders in China, the world's second-biggest economy, lowered their growth forecast to about 7 percent, down from 7.5 percent last year. The new official benchmark comes after China's economy expanded 7.4 percent in 2014, its slowest pace in nearly a quarter century.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude rose 14 cents to $51.66 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, the international benchmark, rose 28 cents at $60.83 in London.

BONDS AND CURRENCIES: U.S. government bond prices fell slightly. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note edged up to 2.13 percent. The euro fell to $1.1027. The dollar rose to 120.05 Japanese yen.

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