* TSX rises 172.89 points to 8,559.60
* Index marks sixth straight higher close
* Energy companies beneficiaries of oil price gain (Adds details, comments and official numbers)
By Frank Pingue
TORONTO, March 17 (Reuters) - Toronto’s main stock index closed higher for a sixth straight session on Tuesday with the latest charge by the resource-heavy index driven by energy issues as the price of oil rose.
It was the index’s highest closing level in more than a month as improved sentiment has helped the market rally sharply from the five-year low it hit earlier in March.
The lion’s share of the latest gain was powered by the 4 percent rally in the big energy group as the price of oil rose by more than $2 a barrel.
Shares of Canadian Natural Resources CNQ.TO, one of the key drivers of the index’s gain, rallied 4.89 percent to close at C$50.02, while EnCana Corp ECA.TO shares rose 2.9 percent to C$51.50.
“Higher oil prices and better sentiment,” Laura Lau, senior portfolio manager at Sentry Select Capital Corp, said of the index’s latest gain. Lau noted, however, that she has not seen any concrete evidence that the global economy has improved.
The S&P/TSX composite index .GSPTSE rose 172.89 points, or 2.06 percent, to close at 8,559.60.
Nine of the index’s 10 sectors ended higher, with a 1 percent skid by the materials group the only blemish. The TSX had fallen 0.97 percent earlier in the session as lower bullion prices rattled the materials sector.
An advance in the weighty financials group was also a major factor in Tuesday’s rally in the aftermath of upbeat comments from a number of U.S. banks.
Several U.S. banks said last week that they had begun 2009 on a strong footing, and Britain’s Barclays Bank BARC.L chimed in with similar comments this week, keeping the momentum in financial stocks alive.
“I do think it’s lingering good news that some of the major U.S. financial services companies made money in the first and second months of the year,” said Kate Warne, Canadian market strategist at Edward Jones in St. Louis, Missouri.
Warne also said the absence of any overly negative news has also helped boost equities recently and that sentiment, more than fundamentals, has been driving the latest gain.
Shares of Royal Bank of Canada RY.TO ended up 2.56 percent at C$36.44, while Bank of Nova Scotia BNS.TO rose 3 percent to C$31.70.
$1=$1.27 Canadian Additional reporting by Jennifer Kwan; Editing by Peter Galloway