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* C$1.0376 vs US$, or 96.38 U.S. cents * Decent North American data helps both currencies By Alastair Sharp TORONTO, July 18 (Reuters) - The Canadian dollar gained against its U.S. counterpart and surged versus a string of other major currencies on Thursday, as stronger-than-expected second-tier data helped both North American currencies climb against global peers. The loonie, as Canada's currency is colloquially known, rose strongly against the yen as investors reduced exposure to the Japanese currency ahead of a weekend election. It also notched solid gains against the Australian dollar . John Curran, a senior vice president at CanadianForex, said recent signposting of monetary policy direction, most recently by the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of Canada, has made data on the state of housing, labor and manufacturing more relevant for currency traders. "It's getting back to traditional positioning where you have to look at all the data points for all the countries concerned. And it is a little more difficult to do than just simple 'risk-on risk-off'," he said. He suggested that recent overly enthusiastic bets on greenback strength were pared back, helping the Canadian dollar. The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits dropped last week and factory activity picked up in the mid-Atlantic region in early July, signs of a stronger economy in Canada's largest trading partner. Meanwhile, Canadian wholesale trade grew by a stronger-than-expected 2.3 percent in May from April, the biggest monthly jump since January 2011, due mainly to higher sales of fertilizer and food, Statistics Canada said on Thursday. While the data was supportive, currency traders remain focused on possible plans by the Federal Reserve to move away from ultra-loose monetary policy soon. The prospect of less stimulus has boosted the U.S. dollar against a range of currencies. "That's the default position at the moment; if there's no news the (U.S.) dollar grinds up," said Adam Cole, global head of currency strategy at Royal Bank of Canada. "And the Canadian dollar has suffered least, as it generally does when markets are dollar-directional." Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke ended two days of testimony to U.S. lawmakers on Thursday in which he said the central bank still expects to start scaling back its massive bond purchase program, but could change its plan if the economic outlook shifted. The Canadian dollar ending the session at C$1.0376 to the greenback, or 96.38 U.S. cents, stronger than its Wednesday close of C$1.0414, or 96.02 U.S. cents. The price of Canadian government debt was mixed, with rises at the short end and falls further along the curve. The two-year bond was off one Canadian cent to yield 1.095 percent, while the benchmark 10-year bond fell 22 Canadian cents to yield 2.401 percent.