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US Stocks Seen Higher, Boosted by Bernanke Speech

U.S. stock index futures signaled a marginally higher open on Thursday, with European and Asian shares boosted after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke reiterated his support for ultra-easy monetary policy on Wednesday.


In his second day of testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Bernanke said loose monetary policy was boosting employment.


"We believe the monetary policies we have conducted have helped get stronger recovery and more jobs than we otherwise would have had," he said, according to Reuters.


Bernanke forecast it would take three more years for unemployment to decline to 6 percent, further diminishing concerns the Fed might tighten policy sooner than expected. Previously, Bernanke has said he will keep interest rates low until unemployment falls to around 6.5 percent.


U.S. gains may be capped however by uncertainty about whether a last-minute deal can be struck to avert the $85 billion of spending cuts, known as the "sequester", due to hit on Friday.


In his testimony, Bernanke warned Congress of the dangers of failing to reach an agreement on how to combat sequestration.


"I think there is some cost to the economy of these repeated, I won't say 'crises,' but these repeated episodes where Congress is unable to come to some agreement and therefore some automatic thing kicks in. I think that is on the whole not a good thing for confidence," Bernanke said on Wednesday, according to Reuters.


Meanwhile, a heavy day for economic releases will get underway with the government's release of its latest estimate of fourth quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at 8:30 a.m. New York time. Economists polled by Reuters forecast a sharp rise on the previous estimate, to 0.5 percent annualized growth, after the previous forecast suggested GDP declined by 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter.


"This upward revision is likely to be a result of both exports and consumption being higher than previously thought," wrote Paul Dales, a U.S. economist at independent research firm Capital Economics, in a note on Wednesday afternoon.


"What's more, despite the expiry of the payroll tax cut in January, the early evidence suggests that GDP growth accelerated in the first quarter of this year."


Hopes for upbeat first quarter growth figures were boosted by Wednesday's release of durable goods data for January from the Commerce Department. Core orders, excluding transportation, posted their biggest gain since December 2011, rising 1.9 percent month-on-month.


In a note on Wednesday, Peter Newland, a U.S. economist at Barclays, said that taking into account the durable goods data numbers, he forecast 1.3 percent growth in the first quarter.


Other economic data out on Thursday includes the Labor Department's weekly initial jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Economists polled by Reuters forecast there were 360,000 new claims in the week ending February 23, down from 362,000 in the previous week.


The Chicago Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) of manufacturing activity is due at 9:45 a.m. Analysts polled by Reuters predict a reading of 54.3 for February, down from 55.6 percent last month. PMI index readings above 50 signal an increase or improvement on the prior month, while readings below 50 indicate a decrease.


Also, the Energy Department will issue its weekly look at natural gas inventories across the U.S. at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday. Inventories fell by 127 billion cubic feet in the prior week.


On the corporate front, Thursday will be a busy day for retail earnings, with Best Buy, Kohl's, and Barnes & Noble posting results before the start of U.S. trade.


Barnes & Noble's results will be eyed with interest after stakeholder Liberty Media said on Wednesday that it had the power to block a sale of the bookseller, and is waiting to hear if Barnes & Noble Chairman Leonard Riggio will make an offer.


Sears Holdings reported forecast-beating earnings for the fourth quarter early on Thursday.


Groupon shares will also be watched, after the discount voucher provider lost a quarter of its market value on Wednesday when it revealed it had started taking a smaller commission on deals during the holidays, in order to retain merchants.


- By CNBC's Katy Barnato