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Australian Market Advances; Healthcare Stocks Surge

The Australian stock market is advancing on Thursday, extending gains from the previous session, following the record highs overnight on Wall Street and the surge in crude oil prices to their highest level since December 2014. Healthcare, mining and oil stocks are among the major gainers.

In late-morning trades, the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index is adding 13.20 points or 0.22 percent to 6,083.60, off a high of 6,102.20. The broader All Ordinaries Index is rising 15.50 points or 0.25 percent to 6,190.80.

Healthcare stocks are gaining following news that Australian producers have won approval to export medical cannabis products. Shares of Cann Group are surging more than 30 percent, while Bod Australia is gaining more than 23 percent and Hydroponics Company is rising more than 18 percent.

In the mining space, Fortescue Metals is rising more than 1 percent and BHP Billiton is advancing almost 1 percent, while Rio Tinto is declining 0.4 percent.

In the oil sector, Oil Search is rising almost 2 percent, Woodside Petroleum is adding more than 1 percent and Santos is up 0.3 percent after crude oil prices rose to their highest level since December 2014.

Meanwhile, the big four banks are mixed. ANZ Banking and National Australia Bank are edging up less than 0.1 percent each, while Westpac is down 0.2 percent and Commonwealth Bank is edging down 0.1 percent.

Gold miners are weak despite gold prices rising for a ninth consecutive session overnight. Newcrest Mining is down 0.5 percent and Evolution Mining is losing more than 1 percent.

On the economic front, the latest survey from the Australian Industry Group showed that the services sector in Australia continued to expand in December, and at an accelerated pace, with a Performance of Service Index score of 52.0. That's up from 51.7 in November, and it moves further above the boom-or-bust line of 50 that separates expansion from contraction.

In the currency market, the Australian dollar is higher against the U.S. dollar on Thursday. In early trades, the local unit was quoted at US$0.7840, up from US$0.7822 on Wednesday.

On Wall Street, stocks again closed at record highs on Wednesday as upbeat data on manufacturing data and construction spending added to recent optimism about the economic outlook. In addition, the minutes of the Federal Reserve's December meeting showed most participants reiterated their support for continuing a gradual approach to raising interest rates.

The Dow rose 98.67 points or 0.4 percent to 24,922.68, the Nasdaq advanced 58.63 points or 0.8 percent to 7,065.53 and the S&P 500 climbed 17.25 points or 0.6 percent to 2,713.06.

The major European markets also moved to the upside on Wednesday. While the U.K.'s FTSE 100 Index rose by 0.3 percent, the French CAC 40 Index and the German DAX Index both climbed by 0.8 percent.

Crude oil futures continued to soar Wednesday, surging above $61 a barrel for the first time since December 2014. WTI crude for February delivery rose $1.26 or 2.1 percent to $61.63 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

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