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Stocks close up in light volume trade on easing geopolitics

U.S.stocks closed higher on Thursday at August highs despite subpar economic data around the world, and after conciliatory remarks from Russian President Vladimir Putin eased geopolitical concerns.

Healthcare, utilities and transports, led by airlines, headed market gains in the close, with a below-average composite volume of 2.6 billion on the New York Stock Exchange.

Analysts said stocks continue to trade as though bad news was actually good news on the view it will keep the Fed engaged with policy easing.

"I think that the market is saying awful news is okay because it gives us our juice for longer. We kind of hoped we'd start to trade on earnings trends," said Gina Martin Adams, institutional equity strategist at Wells Fargo Securities. "But earnings don't matter. In earnings season, stocks fell and it was the best earnings season we've seen in years."

Read MoreWhy some investors think oil's bull run is done

Earlier, U.S. stocks followed European stocks, which closed higher on Thursday despite flat GDP growth across the Eurozone, below expectations, and the first contraction in over a year of Germany's economy still signaled underlying stress.

"I would be likely to overlook the cheeriness of the market because of low volume," said Kim Forrest, equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital. "I think it's huge. A little bit of enthusiasm can go a long way."

Other analysts attributed low volume to the vacation season and called the stock rally "momentum" and "noise," especially with rising bond prices and options expirations on Friday.

Rather than increasing ahead of the deadline, options volume is down 11 percent. J J Kinahan, chief strategist at TD Ameritrade called the decline "an anomaly." But he considered lighter volume a near-term bullish sign that could push stocks higher.

Investors will also weigh PPI and industrial production figures that come out on Friday morning, which might shift focus to inflation away from geopolitics, said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group.

Read MoreEuro zone growth stagnates, Germany contracts

Perrigo led the S&P with gains of more than 7 percent after the maker of over-the-counter store brand drugs reported better-than-expected fourth-quarter results. Biotech firms Amgen and Gilead reached record prices, as did blue-chip gainers Walt Disney and Home Depot.

"Biotech sold off too much in mid-April," said Nick Raich, CEO of The Earnings Scout. "They have some of the best earnings trends. Their outperformance has been justified."

Earnings season is winding down with Kohl's beating earnings but falling short on revenue, and Wal-Mart posting earnings in line with estimates and a rise in quarterly revenue.

On Thursday morning, the Department of Labor reported an increase to 311,000 in claims for unemployment benefits, above forecasts of 295,000. But the four-week average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 2,000 to 295,750, still pointing to firming job market conditions.

In a speech in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March, Putin said: "We will do everything in our power so that this conflict is ended as soon as possible, so that the blood can stop flowing in Ukraine.'' The Russian president added: "We need to consolidate and mobilize but not for war or any kind of confrontation ... for hard work in the name of Russia.''

The comments boosted the U.S. futures market.

Earlier, Kiev denounced Russia's dispatch of a humanitarian aid convoy and said the trucks would not be allowed to pass. Reports on Thursday morning said that the aid trucks were currently standing idle at a military base in Voronezh in Russia, near the Ukrainian border.

Read MoreHere's why stocks can keep going higher

In the Middle East, Israel and Palestinian factions agreed to extend the truce for five more days on Wednesday, and held indirect talks in Egypt for a more comprehensive agreement about Gaza.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that U.S. airstrikes will continue in Iraq, but the Islamic State's siege of Sinjar Mountain had been broken and no further evacuations of Yazidi refugees would be needed. The president said the situation on the mountain had "greatly improved," adding that "Americans should be very proud of our efforts."

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The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed 61.78 points higher, or 0.37 percent, to 16,713.58, with Pfizer and Boeing leading blue-chip gains and Cisco maintaining its trend for the day as the greatest of the 6 laggards.

The S&P 500 closed up 8.46 points, or 0.43 percent, at 1,955.18, with utilities and health care in the lead, while energy was the only decliner among the 10 sectors.

The Nasdaq closed 18.88 points higher, or 0.43 percent, at 4,453.00, with data services company NetApp leading gains on the Nasdaq 100 after results that beat expectations on Wednesday.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell to trade just below 13.

Two stocks advanced for every decliner on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 516 million and a composite volume of 2.6 billion at the close.

On the New York Mercantile Exchange, crude oil futures closed down $2.01 to $95.58 a barrel, while gold rose $1.20, or about 0.8 percent, to $1,315.70 an ounce.

The U.S. dollar continued to decline against major world currencies.

The 10-year Treasury note yield held near 2.40 percent.

In corporate news, Class A shares of Berkshire Hathaway passed $200,000 each in price soon after the opening bell.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers plummeted after the fast-casual dining chain reported a surprise drop in net income for the second quarter.

NewLink Genetics moved higher after the Iowa drug developer said it is ready to start human testing for a possible Ebola vaccine.

SeaWorld continued to fall, a day after reporting weaker-than-expected earnings due to falling attendance. Today, four firms downgraded the stock.

Plug Power rose after the firm's quarterly revenue more than doubled, as fuel cell demand soars.

Cisco Systems moved lower by nearly 3 percent after the networking equipment maker reported earnings and revenue that beat estimates but said it would cut 6,000 jobs, or 8 percent of its workforce.

Noodles & Co. declined more 16 percent as the restaurant firm reported disappointing earnings and revenue for its second quarter.

On tap Friday:

Earnings: Estee Lauder

8:30 a.m.: PPI

8:30 a.m.: Empire manufacturing survey

9:00 a.m.: TIC data

9:15 a.m.: Industrial production

9:15 a.m.: Capacity utilization

9:55 a.m.: University of Michigan consumer sentiment