NEW YORK (AP) -- Stocks leapt to multi-year highs and headed for one of their biggest gains of the year Monday after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke suggested that the economy still needs help to produce faster job growth.
The Dow Jones industrial average climbed 152 points to 13,233 and was on pace for its best day in two weeks. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 18 points to 1,415 and was on track for its highest close since May 2008.
The Nasdaq composite index, which has already rallied almost 20 percent this year, climbed 50 points to 3,118 and was poised for its highest close since November 2000.
Bernanke, speaking at a conference in Arlington, Va., sounded pessimistic about jobs even though the country has averaged a gain of 245,000 jobs for the past three months and the unemployment rate has fallen steadily since last summer.
He noted that the number of people working and the hours they work are well below where they stood before the 2008 financial crisis. He also said some of the decline in the rate was because discouraged workers gave up looking for work.
Bernanke's comments could mean two things for the market.
On one hand, they suggest that he believes the Fed needs to continue to prop up the economy -- by keeping short-term interest rates near zero and perhaps by buying more bonds later.
"It's been a while since we've had any real direction saying we need a bigger push to clean up unemployment," said Chip Cobb, senior vice president of Bryn Mawr Trust Asset Management in Pennsylvania. "Now we're looking for more stimulus again. It's like we can't get enough."
Others focused on Bernanke's saying some recent hiring is merely companies making up for laying off too many people in 2009, rather than a sign of a growing economy.
That could be a relief to investors who were worried that labor costs would grow too quickly and shrink earnings, said Paul Zemsky, head of asset allocation at ING Investment Management in New York.
The Supreme Court heard the first of three days of argument on the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's 2010 health care overhaul, and health care stocks led the market higher.
Health care stocks gained 1.6 percent as a group. Aetna gained 3.1 percent, WellPoint 2.7 percent and UnitedHealth Group 2.6 percent. The court is expected to decide the case in June.
Some of the jump in stocks could also be because money managers are piling into stocks before the first quarter ends this week. Fund managers who missed out on this quarter's rally will want to show clients they are invested for the next quarter.
"It may not be a wise investment decision, but I think it happens," said Brian Lazorishak, portfolio manager at Chase Investment Counsel in Charlottesville, Va.
Stocks were mostly higher in Europe. Germany's DAX index climbed 1.2 percent after a measure of business confidence in that country rose for the fifth month in a row. France's CAC-40 rose 0.7 percent, and in London, the FTSE rose 0.8 percent.
The euro gained half a penny against the dollar. Gold rose $21 to $1,684 an ounce.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.28 percent from 2.23 percent late Friday. Rising yields are a sign that investors are willing to take money out of safer government bonds and into riskier investments like stocks.
The price of crude oil settled at $107.63, up 16 cents, and the average price of gasoline hit $3.90 per gallon. Last year's peak was $3.98, in May, and the record is $4.11, set in July 2008.
Among stocks making moves Monday:
--Lions Gate Entertainment climbed 4.7 percent after its movie "The Hunger Games" made $155 million on its opening weekend.
-- Las Vegas Sands, which owns the Venetian casino in Las Vegas, rose 2.3 percent after Stifel Nicolaus raised its price target for the stock to $69 from $63.
-- Select Comfort Corp., which makes Sleep Number beds, climbed 3.7 percent after Keybanc reiterated its "buy" rating on the stock and said shipments across the mattress industry were up in February.