NEW YORK — Utilities stocks led an early advance on Wall Street Thursday after Berkshire Hathaway's MidAmerican Energy agreed to buy NV Energy, a Nevada-based electric and natural gas company, for $5.6 billion.
The news gave a boost to an industry sector that has been crushed this month after the rich dividend-paying stocks fell out of favor with investors.
NV Energy surged $4.40, or 22 percent, to $23.67, leading a broad advance in utility companies. Northeast Utilities rose $1.11, or 2.7 percent, $42.82. Wisconsin Energy climbed 99 cents, or 2.4 percent, to $41.86.
The Standard & Poor's 500 utilities index climbed for the first day in six. It was up 1.1 percent in early trading, the most of the 10 industry groups in the S&P. It's still down 8.5 percent this month.
Stocks advanced despite some lackluster reports on the economy. The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid rose last week, a sign layoffs have increased, the Labor Department said Thursday. Claims for unemployment aid rose 10,000 last week to 354,000.
Also, an initial estimate of first-quarter economic growth was revised slightly lower. The economy expanded by 2.4 percent in the first three months of the year, slightly less the 2.5 percent rate originally estimated, the government reported.
Trading has been choppy on Wall Street this week as investors wrestle with the question of whether the Federal reserve will ease its economic stimulus. The Fed's bond-buying program has been a major factor supporting a rally in stocks by encouraging investors to buy riskier assets.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 106 points Tuesday, then fell by the same amount Wednesday, leading some market watchers to ask whether the rally that has pushed the Dow and S&P 500 index to record levels may be fizzling out.
"I don't think that stocks are going to trade higher than where they are right now," said Scott Wren, a senior equity strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors. "We've pretty much seen the gains for the year."
The Dow rose 57 points, or 0.4 percent, to 15,357 points in the first hour of trading. The S&P 500 index climbed 7 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,652. The Nasdaq composite index rose 20 points, or 0.4 percent, to 3,486.
In commodities trading, oil fell 90 cents, or 0.9 percent, to $92.25 a barrel. Gold rose $22, or 1.6 percent, to $1,413.10 an ounce. The dollar fell against the euro and the Japanese yen.
In government bond trading, the yield on the 10-year note rose was unchanged at 2.12 percent.
Among other stocks making big moves:
— Clearwire, a wireless network operator, surged 76 cents, or 22.1 percent, to $4.24 after satellite TV operator Dish Network raised its bid for the company to $6.9 billion.
— EMC, a data storage equipment maker, rose $1.34, or 5.6 percent, to $24.95 after the company said it will ramp up its stock buyback program sharply and begin paying a quarterly dividend.
— Big Lots, a discount store chain, fell $3.05, or 8 percent, to $35.35 after the company reported a 21 percent drop in quarterly income and lowered its full-year revenue forecast.