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Dec 11, 5:11 PM EST

US stocks close modestly higher; S&P 500, Dow hit new highs


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AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

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Technology companies led U.S. stocks modestly higher Monday, driving the market to another set of milestones.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index and Dow Jones industrial average finished at new highs. Both indexes also hit record highs on Friday.

Solid gains by health care companies also helped lift the market, outweighing losses among banks and industrial stocks. Energy stocks rose along with the price of crude oil.

Investors had their eye on bitcoin futures, which made their market debut. But traders were mostly looking ahead to the outcome of Wednesday's meeting of Federal Reserve policymakers.

"The market is kind of in a holding pattern, just sort of waiting for the Fed meeting," said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading & derivatives at Charles Schwab.

The S&P 500 index rose 8.49 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,659.99. The index has risen on a weekly basis the past three weeks. The Dow gained 56.87 points, or 0.2 percent, to 24,386.03. The Nasdaq composite added 35 points, or 0.5 percent, to 6,875.08. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks slipped 1.88 points, or 0.1 percent, to 1,519.84.

The Fed is scheduled to issue an interest rate policy update on Wednesday. Economists expect the central bank to lift short-term rates by 0.25 percent. That would be the third interest rate hike by the central bank this year.

While inflation has remained low, the central bank has seen a path to gradually raise rates as the economy and labor market have strengthened.

The Labor Department said Monday that U.S. employers posted slightly fewer job openings in October than the previous month, but the number of people being hired increased. Last week, another report showed that employers added a net total of 244,000 jobs in October and 228,000 in November. The trend helped keep the unemployment rate at 4.1 percent.

"The Fed sees enough strength in the overall economy, despite the lack of inflation, to still go ahead and continue to hike rates," Frederick said.

Technology companies accounted for much of the market's gains Monday.

Symantec rose $1.24, or 4.4 percent, to $29.22. Apple gained up 1.9 percent after the website Apple Insider said the company is delivering new iPhones to customers at a faster pace. Apple also made news after it agreed to acquire the Shazam music-identification service for an undisclosed amount. The stock added $3.30 to $172.67.

Allergan led the gainers in the health care sector. The company climbed $4.96, or 3 percent, to $172.76.

Drugmaker Bluebird Bio surged 17.9 percent after it reported results from an early study of a cancer treatment that the company is developing with Celgene. Bluebird gained $30.65 to $201.80. Celgene added $1.91, or 1.8 percent, to $108.

Bitcoin futures rose on their first day of trading on a major U.S. exchange. Trading on the contract for the virtual currency began Sunday. The first-ever futures contract closed at $18,545, according to data from Cboe Global Markets, ending its initial day of trading with a 20 percent gain from its opening price.

The futures allow traders to make bets on the future direction of bitcoin. The price of an actual bitcoin has soared since it began the year below $1,000 and was at $17,095 at 5:07 p.m. Eastern Time Friday, according to Coindesk.

Overstock.com, which accepts bitcoin, surged $9.92, or 22 percent, to $55.

Oil and gas prices rose, boosting energy sector stocks. Chesapeake Energy added 15 cents, or 4.1 percent, to $3.83.

Benchmark U.S. crude gained 63 cents, or 1.1 percent, to settle at $57.99 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, the international standard, added $1.29, or 2 percent, to close at $64.69 per barrel in London.

Shares in banks and other financial companies declined. Zions Bancorporation shed 99 cents, or 1.9 percent, to $49.94.

Several industrial companies also posted losses, including Verisk Analytics. The stock slid $1.84, or 1.9 percent, to $94.32.

In other energy futures trading, wholesale gasoline picked up 1 cent to $1.73 per gallon, while heating oil gained 2 cents to $1.95 per gallon. Natural gas rose 6 cents, or 2 percent, to $2.83 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Gold slipped $1.50 to settle at $1,246.90 per ounce, while silver fell 4 cents to $15.79 per ounce. Copper added 3 cents to $3.01 per pound.

Bond prices were little changed. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note held at 2.38 percent.

The dollar edged up to 113.52 yen from 113.51 yen late Friday. The euro rose to $1.1786 from $1.1768.

Major stock indexes in Europe finished mostly lower. Germany's DAX and the CAC 40 in France each fell 0.2 percent, while Britain's FTSE 100 added 0.8 percent.

Earlier in Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 stock index climbed 0.6 percent, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng index gained 1.0 percent. The S&P ASX 200 in Australia edged 0.1 percent higher. South Korea's Kospi picked up 0.3 percent. India's Sensex rose 0.2 percent. Shares in Southeast Asia also rose.

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