NEW YORK — US stocks surged higher Thursday helped by buoyant data on new jobless claims and housing starts, with the Dow reaching its highest level since May 2008.

Positive signs for the US economy poured in, with the weekly report of new claims for unemployment benefits falling to their lowest level since March 2008 and data on January housing construction confirming a pickup in that depressed sector.

"A strong gain in starts, combined with an acceleration in the number of homes currently under construction, suggests the residential construction sector is finally on a steady, upward trend," said Jeffrey Rosen at Briefing Research.

At the closing bell the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 122.76 points (0.96 percent) to 12,903.71.

The broad-based S&P 500 added 14.82 points (1.10 percent) to 1,358.05, while the Nasdaq Composite rose 44.02 (1.51 percent) to 2,959.85.

General Motors shares rose over nine percent despite fourth-quarter earnings missing expectations, with analysts saying they foresee a solid year in 2012.

On the Nasdaq, shares of giant online retailer Amazon fell around 2.5 percent.

Bond prices slipped.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 1.99 percent from 1.92 percent on Wednesday, while the 30-year rose to 3.15 percent from 3.07 percent.

Bond prices and yields move in opposite directions.