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Oil prices help drive stocks higher

US stock indexes closed mostly higher on Wednesday after a sharp increase in crude oil prices helped drive market-leading gains for energy companies.

Banks and other financial stocks declined the most as bond yields headed lower, which translates into lower interest rates on loans and lower profits for banks.

The Dow Jones industrial average ended in the red, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index and Nasdaq composite eked out modest gains. Two stocks rose for every one that fell on the New York Stock Exchange.

The S&P 500 index added 2.56 points, or 0.1%, to 2,361.13. The Dow fell 42.18 points, or 0.2%, to 20,659.32. The Nasdaq composite index gained 22.41 points, or 0.4%, to 5,897.55.

Bond prices rose. The 10-year Treasury yield fell to 2.39% from 2.42%.

A day after Wall Street rallied on news that US consumer confidence reached its highest level since 2000, the market got another dose of encouraging economic data Wednesday.

The National Association of Realtors said more people signed contracts to buy US homes last month as warm weather and rising confidence appeared to encourage consumers to look for houses. The NAR's pending home sales index climbed 5.5% in February to 112.3, its highest point since April and its second-highest point since 2006.

Investors are hoping that Congress and the White House will enact tax cuts and other business-friendly policy proposals promised by President Donald Trump during his campaign.

Those expectations helped lift the market in the weeks after the election last November. But some of that investor optimism dimmed in recent weeks after the Trump administration's bid to pass a bill intended to begin repealing the Affordable Care Act failed to win enough votes.

Outside of Washington, investors had their eye on the latest company earnings news. Investors bid up shares in several companies that posted solid quarterly results or outlooks.

RH, formerly Restoration Hardware, climbed 14.9% a day after the home furnishings and decor retailer reported stronger earnings. It added 5.68 dollars to 43.68 dollars.

Verint Systems jumped 10% after the software company reported better-than-expected quarterly results. Verint also said during a management conference call with analysts that it is possible that at some point it will split itself into two businesses, but noted it has no plans now to do that. Verint's stock rose 3.95 dollars to 43.50 dollars.

Traders also welcomed news of other corporate deals.

Exar surged 22.3% after MaxLinear agreed to buy the chipmaker for 13 dollars per share, or 662 million dollars. Shares in Exar gained 2.37 dollars to 12.99 dollars. MaxLinear rose 1.55 dollars, or 5.8%, to 28.06 dollars.

Some companies' quarterly report cards failed to impress traders.

Dave & Buster's Entertainment fell 3.4% after the arcade and restaurant chain announced disappointing sales at older locations. The stock gave up 2.10 dollars to 60.09 dollars.

Not all drugmakers had a rough day.

Vertex Pharma vaulted 20.5% after the drugmaker disclosed results from two studies of a new cystic fibrosis treatment. The company said patients treated with a new experimental drug plus its own Kalydeco had improved lung function. The stock rose 18.34 dollars to 108.01 dollars.

Several major overseas stock indexes closed higher.

In Europe, Germany's DAX climbed 0.4%, while France's CAC 40 added 0.5%. Britain's FTSE 100 gained 0.4% against the backdrop of Britain triggering the start of its exit from the European Union.

Earlier in Asia, Tokyo's benchmark Nikkei 225 index edged up 0.1%. South Korea's Kospi rose 0.2%. Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 0.2%. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 rose 0.9% to 5,873.50.

In currency trading, the dollar weakened to 111.07 yen from 111.09 yen. The euro fell to 1.0759 dollars from 1.0808 dollars.

Energy prices closed sharply higher as traders weighed remarks from Iran's oil minister

Oil prices climbed after Iran's oil minister said the recent production cut deal will probably be extended, and fighting in Libya is affecting its oil industry.

Benchmark US crude oil futures rose 1.14 dollars, or 2.4%, to close at 49.51 dollars a barrel in New York.

Brent crude, used to price international oils, climbed 1.09 dollars, or 2.1%, to close at 52.42 dollars a barrel in London. Natural gas added 8 cents to 3.18 dollars per 1,000 cubic feet, wholesale gasoline rose 4 cents to 1.67 dollars per gallon and heating oil gained 3 cents to 1.54 dollars per gallon.

AP

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