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Wall Street plows higher as anxiety falls to seven-month low

By Noel Randewich

(Reuters) - U.S. stocks plowed further into positive territory for 2016 on Wednesday, helped for a second session by comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen that eased anxiety about potential interest rate hikes.

MetLife and other financial stocks led the market higher with Apple and other technology stocks also gaining.

Yellen said on Tuesday the U.S. central bank should proceed cautiously as it looks to raise interest rates. On Wednesday, her comments were echoed by Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, who said there was a high hurdle to raising rates in April, given low inflation.

That soothed investors who have been on edge for months about a slow global economy, a strong dollar, volatile oil prices and lackluster top-line growth at U.S. companies.

The CBOE Market Volatility Index (.VIX), Wall Street's "fear gauge", ended down 1.9 percent at its lowest level since August, just before fears of a financial crisis in China sparked pandemonium in global markets.

"The market's best friend continues to be the Fed and central banks around the world," said Jeff Carbone, co-founder of Cornerstone Financial Partners in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Investor appetite for risk has increased."

Higher interest rates are generally bad for stocks because they reduce lending and investment and make it harder for companies to expand. A sputtering global economy and strong dollar have already caused earnings of U.S. companies to shrink and many investors want the Fed to hold off raising rates until after its meetings in April and June.

The S&P 500 (.SPX) gained 0.44 percent to end at 2,063.95 points, bringing its gain for 2016 to about 1 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average (.DJI) added 0.47 percent at 17,716.66 points and the Nasdaq Composite (.IXIC) also added 0.47 percent to 4,869.29.

MetLife's shares rose 5.34 percent after a court ruled that the life insurer was not systemically important to the country's financial system. The tag "too big to fail" requires more stringent regulations.

Fellow insurers Prudential Financial (PRU.N) and AIG (AIG.N), which was rescued by a $182 billion government bailout during the 2008 financial meltdown, added about 2 percent.

Apple (AAPL.O) rose 1.75 percent after Cowen & Co raised its rating on the stock to "outperform." The stock gave the biggest boost to the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 1,892 to 1,122. On the Nasdaq, 1,746 issues rose and 1,074 fell.

The S&P 500 index showed 55 new 52-week highs and no new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 74 new highs and 23 new lows.

About 6.6 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 7.8 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.

(Additional reporting by Yashaswini Swamynathan and Abhiram Nandakumar; Editing by Nick Zieminski)