US stocks closed higher amid some good news on the US housing market and signs the Federal Reserve will continue its stimulus policies.

On Wall Street, the mood was boosted after the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke defended the central bank's aggressive asset buying policies.

He said they were unlikely to cause inflation or asset-price bubbles.

Trade was also lifted after measures of new home sales and consumer confidence both rose by more than expected for February.

Shares in the biggest bank in the US, JP Morgan, closed down 0.2 per cent after it announced it would slash around 19,000 jobs in mortgages and community banking by the end of next year.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 0.8 per cent to 13,900, the S&P 500 index added 0.6 per cent to 1,497, and the Nasdaq Composite Index rose by 0.4 per cent to 3,130.

However, European markets were again shaken by the outcome of Italy's weekend election.

In Milan, Italy's main FTSE MIB index dived 4.9 per cent to 15,552, while the FTSE 100 in London dropped 1.3 per cent to 6,270 - the best of the region's markets.

Domestically, futures trade is suggesting a positive start to the Australian session - the ASX SPI 200 index was up 29 points at 5,007.

In commodity trade, the spot price of gold recovered to $US1,616 an ounce after Mr Bernanke's testimony to Congress, and West Texas crude oil slipped to $US92.60 a barrel.

In currency trade, the Australian dollar continues to decline against most major counterparts: at 9:00am (AEDT) it was fetching 102.3 US cents, 78.4 euro cents, 94.1 Japanese yen, 67.6 British pence, and just under $NZ1.24.

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