Wall Street soared Thursday, propelling the Standard & Poor's 500 index and Dow Jones industrials to record highs as bright spots among generally sluggish retail sales allowed investors to toss aside concerns about the health of the economy.

The rally, which included the Dow's biggest one-day gain since March 2003, was perhaps surprising given the fact that there was no extraordinary announcent or other catalyst usually seen with such a huge gain, and that it came before most companies have announced their second-quarter earnings. The rise also marked a sharp contrast to the start of the week, when stocks fell sharply amid concerns that some hedge funds could buckle under ill-placed bets on the housing sector.

But investors, heartened by signs of a happy and spending consumer, clearly decided to put some bets on the table. Though retail sales generally appeared to be crimped last month by higher gasoline prices and a tepid housing market, and the outlook for the coming months was difficult to ascertain, the overall reading wasn't as dour as some investors expected.

Several reports beat Street expectations -- notably that of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the world's largest retailer, which posted a better-than-expected 2.4 percent jump in sales at stores open at least a year.

"It's relief that things weren't as bad as people expected," said Bill Schultz, chief investment officer at McQueen, Ball & Associates, referring to the retailers' reports and the economy at large. "We're maybe getting slower growth but not the fall-of-the-cliff economic scenarios," he said of investors' reading of the economy.

But, Schultz said, "I think it is, over the near-term, a little bit over done, certainly on a two-day basis," he added, referring to the rally.

According to preliminary calculations, the S&P 500 rose 28.94, or 1.91 percent, to 1,547.70, above its record close of 1,539.18, set June 4.

The Dow shot up 283.86, or 2.09 percent, to 13,861.73; its previous record close is 13,676.32, also set June 4.

The Nasdaq composite index rose 49.94, or 1.88 percent, to 2,701.73. The index, bloated by the late 1990s tech boom, is nowhere near its closing record of 5,048.62, set in March 2000.