19/04/2010 A generic pic of the JSE board at Sandton JHB. Photo: Leon Nicholas

Johannesburg - South African stocks gained on Thursday, pushing major indices back towards a record high set earlier this week as battered retailers extended a recovery to a third straight day.

However, a strengthening rand hit exporters and downbeat economic data in the US restricted further gains for Africa's biggest bourse.

US weekly initial jobless claims dipped last week, with the four-week moving average falling to its lowest since March 2008, signalling the world biggest economy is continuing to recover slowly.

The benchmark JSE Top-40 index added 0.3 percent to 36,269.66, not far from the 36,421.32 record set earlier this week. The broader All-share index gained by the same margin to 40,694.77.

Major retailers were among the top gainers, rising for the third straight day after brokerage house Absa Capital gave an upbeat assessment of the sector earlier in the week.

“Retailers have been sold off heavily over the past few weeks. This could well be a technical bounce. I don't think much has changed in terms of the fundamentals,” said Roche Kilian, a trader at Thebe Securities.

Grocers such Shoprite and Woolworths have been the darlings of investors for more than a year in a rally that many analysts say has pushed shares to levels from which they can only disappoint.

Apparel retailer Mr Price was up 2.63 percent at 127.80 rand, the biggest percentage gainer on the benchmark index. Massmart added 2.55 percent to 187.15 rand and Shoprite climbed 2 percent to 180 rand.

In earnings news, Sun International climbed 3.5 percent to 103 rand after the hotels and casino operator said half-year profit likely rose as much as 45 percent. The stock notched up a record high of 106 rand earlier in the session.

But gold miners and exporters kept the exuberance in check as the rand continued a tentative recovery from a four-year low hit late last month.

Gold Fields fell nearly 1 percent to 104.64 rand and rival AngloGold Ashanti was off percent half a percent at 255.05 rand.

Elsewhere, paper-maker Sappi slipped 3.45 percent to 28 rand. During the session, the stock plunged to a record low of 27.61 rand after weak quarterly profits announced in the previous session.

Provisional bourse statistics showed a slightly below average 151 million shares traded, with 183 stocks advancing, 107 losing ground and 63 remaining unchanged. - Reuters