The New Zealand sharemarket has started strongly after United States stocks powered ahead, rising for a third straight day.

Among the biggest gainers early in this country were leading stocks Contact Energy, which rose 8c to $5.68, and Fletcher Building, which gained 9c to $5.40. Telecom was up 2c to $2.37.

Around 10.15am the benchmark NZX-50 index was up 23.92 points, or 0.96 per cent, to 2515.54, after yesterday losing 5.9 points.

The Warehouse lifted 5c early to $3.50, having fallen 7c yesterday after announcing a fall in interim profit in a difficult retail environment.

Other companies gaining early included fishing company Sanford, up 5c to $5.50, while Rakon added 4c to $1.01, Sky TV was up 4c to $3.85, Sky City gained 4c to $2.70, and Ryman Healthcare added 3c to $1.25.

Stocks gaining 2c included Auckland Airport, to $1.70, Guinness Peat Group to 69, and Nuplex to $1.05.

The rise in US stocks came amid relief that a ratings cut by S&P in General Electric was just one notch and that no further cuts loomed, while retail sales data showed some stabilisation in consumer spending.

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Wall Street closed out its best three-day run since the end of November after GE, the ninth-largest company in the S&P 500 and viewed as an economic bellwether, jumped nearly 13 per cent to US$9.57.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc, up 3.1 per cent at US$48.94, ranked among the Dow's top advancers following a government report that showed sales at US retailers fell by an unexpectedly small margin in February.

Preliminary figures put the Dow Jones industrial average close up 3.5 per cent, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index up 4.1 per cent, and the Nasdaq Composite Index up 4 per cent.

- NZPA