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U.S. stocks closed more than 1 percent higher Thursday as financial stocks rallied and mostly soft economic data supported the case for a rate hike delay. (Tweet This)

"This is the same story that we've had for so many years now as the market seems to be instinctively responding to the notion that we're going to have more stimulus (and) shrugging off questions on earnings," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial.

The Dow Jones industrial average and S&P 500 recovered to close above the psychologically key levels of 17,000 and 2,000, respectively, after closing below on Wednesday.

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The major averages closed at or near session highs, with the Dow ending up 217 points. Goldman Sachs and Boeing contributed the most to gains. The greatest weight on the index was UnitedHealth, which recovered some losses to close about 1.5 percent lower. The firm's but guidance held steady.

Financials rose 2.3 percent to lead all sectors in the S&P 500 higher.

"There's a part of the market that's looking at the inflation story," Krosby said. She and other analysts also noted the sector has been beaten down in the last few weeks. Financials are 5.3 percent lower for the year so far, versus the S&P 500's year-to-date loss of 1.7 percent.

The Nasdaq composite outperformed, closing up 1.8 percent as the iShares Biotechnology Stocks ETF (IBB) leaped nearly 4.4 percent and Apple gained 1.5 percent.

Major averages 5-day performance

The Consumer Price Index out Thursday showed little inflation in the near-term, while retail sales barely rose Wednesday.

"One of the slightly disappointing things around the U.S. consumer is they haven't been spending ... at the rate that we thought they would," said Ben Pace, chief investment officer at HPM Partners. "There's been some downgrades to a lot of GDP forecasts at many of the Wall Street firms, but when we take it to the markets anything that seems to delay a rate hike is viewed favorably."

"I think the markets are trading on a daily basis on the daily statistics, forecasts and the earnings. I think it's looking at fundamentals more than anything," he said.

Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Boston Private Wealth, also noted support for stocks from dovish comments by European Central Bank policymaker Ewald Nowotny, who said it was "obvious" the bank must search for more ways to stimulate the euro zone economy.

"It's more of those dovish comments and then it's going to focus on the earnings and a little less about economic data," Pavlik said. "If it weren't for trepidation as far as earnings season is concerned we'd probably see the market higher right now, because people are a little nervous."

The euro turned lower against the dollar on Nowotny's remarks, before extending losses on U.S. data.

U.S. CPI declined 0.2 percent in September, matching expectations. Ex-food and energy, the price index rose 0.2 percent for the month, following a 0.1 percent rise in August.

"Low inflation continues to say the Fed's not in a rush to raise interest rates and investors are taking that as a positive sign," said Kate Warne, investment strategist at Edward Jones. "However, I would point out that a lot of the low inflation (numbers) are due to low oil prices."

"We keep seeing very low inflation numbers. That's certainly good news for consumers, workers whose wages aren't rising very quickly," she said. "But with oil prices flattening, we're not going to see inflation as low as it has been. It will move closer to the Fed's 2 percent number more quickly than people are anticipating and that's a reason the Fed will say there's a reason to raise in 2016."

In another sign of continued strength in the labor market, weekly jobless claims declined to 255,000, falling back to a 42-year low.

New York Fed President William Dudley said at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution Thursday morning he would favor a rate hike this year if the economy performs in line with forecasts. However, he said recent economic news did suggest economic slowdown.

"Overall his comments that the economy is slowing are consistent with investors' views that the Fed will wait and not raise interest rates in December," Warne said.

In pre-market trade, U.S. stock index futures trimmed gains, with the Dow futures up about 50 points amid the morning data releases and earnings from major banks such as Citigroup and Goldman Sachs.

"It's a mixed picture for earnings and economic data," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital. It's a "market that's still searching for direction and that direction is basically being impaired by economic reports."

The October Empire State Index posted a read of negative 11.36. The index showed negative 14.67 in September.

The Philly Fed index posted negative 4.5 for October.

Read MoreInternal split at Fed adds to confusion in markets

Treasury yields edged higher, with the 10-year near 2.01 percent and the around 0.60 percent.

"The 2-year yield is a view of the data," Krosby said. "It's obviously saying this is going a little more where the Fed may surprise everyone in December."

The U.S. dollar traded about half a percent higher against major world currencies, with the euro trading around $1.14 and the yen at 118.55 yen against the dollar.

Gold settled higher, up $7.70 at $1,187.50 an ounce.

Crude oil futures settled down 26 cents, or 0.56 percent, at $46.38 a barrel. The U.S. government reported a jump in U.S. stockpiles. However, the increase was not as large as suggested by industry data the day before. Brent held lower near $48.80 a barrel.

Overseas, the pan-European Stoxx 600 index closed up nearly 1.5 percent on Thursday. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei finished 1.15 percent higher, while in China the Shanghai Composite closed 2.32 percent higher.

Major U.S. Indexes

Goldman Sachs reported earnings that missed on the top and bottom line as a decline in bond trading hurt profits. The stock surged 3 percent Thursday but is still down about 4.5 percent year-to-date.

Citigroup earnings beat but revenue missed expectations and declined from the same period last year. The stock closed up 4.4 percent, still down about 2 percent for 2015.

So far, most companies have beat generally lowered expectations, while some corporate commentaries came in weak.

Wal-Mart's disappointing forecast Wednesday of a potential double-digit earnings decline in the coming fiscal year kicked a market already reacting to weaker-than-expected September retail sales, soft producer prices and flat business inventories.

The stock closed down about 1.2 percent lower Thursday after a historic plunge of 10 percent Wednesday.

Read More

Earnings from Schlumberger, Mattel, Western Alliance, People's United Financial and WD-40 are all due after the bell.

Traders also eyed the initial public offering of payment processor First Data, which closed down 1.56 percent after an initial attempt to hold higher. On Wednesday, the year's largest IPO was while supermarket operator Albertsons' IPO, the second largest, was postponed.

"Obviously it's a huge IPO and it's a good thing they got it priced. ... They got the deal done in a market that's been a little volatile recently," said Peter Coleman, head trader at Convergex.

Read More Albertsons postpones IPO indefinitely

In other news, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Thursday the U.S. debt limit will be exhausted Nov. 3, two days before previously estimated.

"I'm reading everyday about the dysfunction in Washington but the markets don't seem that worried about it," Pace said.

"There was an overall sense when (House Speaker John) Boehner resigned that we wouldn't have to worry about the debt limit for a few months, that he would cobble (together) something with the Democrats. If he were to stay on that would make it more likely that a deal will be reached," he said.

Read MoreEarly movers: GS, BUD, UNH, MO, SBUX, WMT, NFLX, UNH & more

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 217.00 points, or 1.28 percent, at 17,141.75, with JPMorgan Chase leading advancers and UnitedHealth the greatest decliner.

The closed up 29.62 points, or 1.49 percent, at 2,023.86, with financials leading all 10 sectors higher.

The Nasdaq closed up 87.25 points, or 1.82 percent, at 4,870.10.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, held near 16.

About five stocks advanced for every decliner on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 927 million and a composite volume of nearly 3.7 billion in the close.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Dudley spoke. It was Thursday morning.

On tap this week:


Earnings: Schlumberger, Mattel, People's United Fincl., WD-40


Earnings: GE, Honeywell, Comerica, Kansas City Southern, SunTrust

9:15 am: Industrial production

10:00 am: JOLTS

10:00 am: Consumer sentiment

10:00 am: Atlanta Fed business inflation expectations

1:00 pm: Oil rig count

4:00 pm: Treasury International Capital

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