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TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's main stock index climbed to its highest level in more than 1-1/2 months on Friday, ending the week higher after a rise in commodity prices buoyed shares of natural resource companies and boosted market sentiment.
The Toronto index's weekly gain, 1.8 percent, was its fourth in a row. Over the last few days of the week investors cheered reassurances from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that the U.S. central bank's plans to scale back monetary stimulus will be flexible.
On Friday, the strength in resource shares helped the index do better than U.S. stocks, bucking the long-term trend of Canadian equities performing poorly compared with U.S. markets.
"The expectations have been extraordinarily low for Canadian stocks, but they are improving somewhat," said Bob Gorman, chief portfolio strategist at TD Wealth, which manages assets of $211 billion across North America.
"U.S. will outperform in general going forward, though we'll play a bit of a catch-up in the short to medium term."
Gorman, who expects the benchmark Canadian index to end the year at 13,200, expects steady growth in Toronto stocks and sees a modest rebound ahead for the index's energy and materials sectors.
The Toronto Stock Exchange's S&P/TSX composite index .GSPTSE closed up 56.28 points, or 0.45 percent, at 12,685.13, after reaching 12,693.87, its highest level since May 31, earlier in the day.
As a result of the pounding resource stocks have taken due to low commodity prices, some investors are beginning to reassess their positions, Gorman said.
"The expectations are battered and prices are awfully low so people are having a few second thoughts and saying, ‘over anything but the short term, these are probably going to be worth more than they are right now'."
Six of the 10 main sectors on the index were in negative territory, but the three weightiest groups advanced.
The index's materials sector, which includes mining stocks, rose 2 percent, benefiting from a 4.1 percent surge in gold producers. Gold rose 0.8 percent due to a decline in the U.S. dollar, with Bernanke's comments this week also providing support.<GOL/>
Shares of energy producers were up 1.1 percent, tracking higher oil prices. <O/R> In the group, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNQ.TO) advanced 1.3 percent to C$34.35. Suncor Energy Inc (SU.TO) gained 1.4 percent to C$33.
John Stephenson, senior vice president at First Asset Investment Management, expects the diminishing spread between the price of Western Canada Select and the West Texas Intermediate crude oil benchmark, as well as a recent rally in oil prices to continue to drive energy stocks.
"Oil is the single biggest story," he said. "There's tremendous potential for further gains since you have several factors working in its favor."
Financials, the index's most heavily weighted sector, gained 0.2 percent. Royal Bank of Canada (RY.TO), the country's biggest lender, added 0.5 percent to C$65.09, and Bank of Montreal (BMO.TO) rose 0.4 percent to C$64.67.
The Canadian earnings season unofficially kicks off next week. Analysts expect companies to post small overall gains in second-quarter profit, as strength in the energy and insurance sectors is offset by struggling miners.
Editing by Peter Galloway