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Stocks close higher as worries about Syria conflict wane

CNBC logo CNBC 2 days ago Fred Imbert and Alexandra Gibbs

Stocks ended higher Monday as fears of an escalating conflict in Syria eased.

The Dow gained 212 points, with Merck rising 2.6 percent. The S&P 500 climbed 0.8 percent, with telecommunications rising. The Nasdaq advanced 0.7 percent.

Last week, the U.S. military conducted precision missile strikes against the Syrian government as a response to a chemical attack carried out in the country. The attack was conducted in conjunction with France and the U.K.

The Pentagon described the U.S.-led strikes as a "justified, legitimate and proportionate response" to the Syrian regime's continued use of chemical weapons.

"You've also got so much coming out of Washington that makes investors nervous, but not panic unless it's an immediate threat," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank.

Investors also kept an eye on corporate earnings after Bank of America reported better-than-expected quarterly results. The bank's earnings were helped by loan growth and lower corporate taxes.

The earnings season is off to a good start thus far. Last week, BlackRock, J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup reported better-than-expected earnings. Netflix is scheduled to release its quarterly results Monday after the close.

Wall Street has high expectations for this earnings season, with analysts expecting a 17.3 percent increase in first-quarter earnings, according to FactSet.

"This represents a high bar for stocks to get over and [the] pattern of the past 20 years is that stocks have tended to struggle when upside earnings surprises have slowed," said Bruce Bittles, chief investment strategist at Baird. "Elevated earnings expectations are coming with stock market valuations stretched."

In economic news, U.S. retail sales rose 0.6 percent in March, boosted by a 2 percent jump in auto sales.

Meanwhile, Merck shares popped after the company said its cancer-treatment drug Keytruda reduced the risk of death in the trial by 51 percent when combined with chemotherapies, versus chemo alone.

CNBC's Amanda Macias contributed to this report

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