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Stocks End Higher as Oil Tops $72

Stocks ended higher Wednesday after a surprise drop in crude inventories, which sent oil prices — and energy stocks — soaring.

Stocks had started the day lower after a selloff in China rippled across the globe. But the market rebounded after the midmorning report and held gains through the closing bell.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 61.22, or 0.7 percent, to close at 9,279.16. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq each advanced 0.7 percent.

This came after stocks rallied Tuesday, snapping a two-day losing streak that many market pros said might be the start of a correction.

But it was clear investors weren't trusting the gains of the past two days: The VIX, the best gauge of fear in the market, ticked higher, closing at 26.26.

Merck jumped 2.5 percent, making it the top percentage gainer on the Dow, after a court upheld the patent on the firm's allergy drug Singulair, effectively blocking a generic version from Israel's Teva Pharmaceuticals.

Merck gave a lift to the rest of the pharma sector, with rival Pfizer up more than 2 percent.

ExxonMobil and Chevron boosted the Dow as crude prices climbed after a surprise drop in crude supplies. Oil surged nearly 5 percent, settling at $72.42 a barrel.

In the day's other economic news, mortgage applications rose last weekamid an increased demand for refinancing as mortgage rates slid to a five-week low.

As earnings season winds down, the market received a positive surprise from Deere, which easily beat earnings estimates, but revenue was weak. Shares ended down 2.9 percent.

UBS shares slipped 2.9 percent after the Swiss bank agreed to hand over details of about 4,450 bank accounts to the US.

Shares of Dow component Hewlett-Packard fell 0.3 percent after the company late Tuesday reported its profit dropped 19 percent, though it did make optimistic comments about consumer spending on PCs.

Analog Devices shares rose 2.1 percent after three brokerages raised their price targets on the stock, saying they expect margins to improve in coming quarters.

Elsewhere in earnings, afternoon reports include JDS Uniphase and Limited Brands . JDS Uniphase fell slightly ahead of its earnings, while Limited shares jumped 4.4 percent.

Alcoa has been under pressure this week as aluminum prices have tumbled. The Dow component lost another 3.4 percent Wednesday.

It's the end of August, so trading was light: Roughly 988 million shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange. Advancers outpaced decliners, roughly 3 to 2.

rose for every nine that fell. This Week:

WEDNESDAY: Earnings from Limited after the bell
THURSDAY: Weekly jobless claims; leading indicators; Philly Fed survey; Earnings from Gamestop, Hormel, and Sears
FRIDAY: Existing-home sales; Earnings from JM Smucker

Send comments to cindy.perman@nbcuni.com.