The S&P 500 gained eight points to 1,480 as of noon EST Thursday, its highest level since December 2007. The Dow Jones industrial average also rose, gaining 75 points to 13,586. The Nasdaq composite rose 18 points to 3,135.
U.S. builders started work on homes in December at the fastest pace since the summer of 2008, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Homebuilder stocks rose broadly following the report. Lennar rose 98 cents to $41.50, KB Home gained 32 cents to $16.47 and D.R. Horton rose 42 cents to $21.42.
The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell to a five-year low last week, the Labor Department reported, the latest sign that the job market is healing. Weekly unemployment benefit applications fell 37,000 to 335,000, a bigger decline than economists had forecast, according to financial data provider FactSet.
The reports helped offset disappointment over the fourth-quarter earnings report of two of the nation's biggest banks, Citigroup and Bank of America, said JJ Kinahan, chief derivatives strategist at TD Ameritrade.
"The financial stocks are having a tough time impressing the Street with anything," Kinahan said. "The traditional banks are getting squeezed on margins and the expectations for a lot of those companies had already been set low."
Citigroup fell $1.20 to $41.28 after its income fell well short of Wall Street's expectations. The bank's legal expenses rose and it released less money from its loan-loss reserves.
Bank of America also dropped 42 cents to $11.36 after its earnings declined. The bank is continuing to work on clearing up old problems at its mortgage unit. The bank made $367 million in the last three months of 2012 after paying preferred dividends, down sharply from $1.6 billion in the same period a year ago.
Stocks started 2013 with a rally after lawmakers came up with a last-minute plan to stop the U.S. going over the "fiscal cliff," a series of tax hikes and spending cuts that economists say would probably have pushed the U.S. into recession.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves inversely to its price, rose three basis points to 1.87 percent.
Other stocks making big moves:
— EBay rose $1.48 to $54.38 after reporting fourth-quarter earnings that exceeded analysts' expectations. Bargain-hunting holiday shoppers flocked to eBay's online shopping mall and digital payment service.
— CBS surged $3.83 to $41.77 after the media company said late Wednesday that it was converting its U.S. outdoor advertising business to a real estate investment trust and selling the international portion of the business.
— BlackRock gained $9.94 to $232.18 after the investment manager said its fourth-quarter net income surged, beating analysts' forecasts. The company also increased its dividend.