U.S. stock index futures pointed to a sharply lower open on Thursday after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke hinted the central bank may scale back its asset purchases later this year.
In a press conference after the Fed's policy statement on Wednesday, Bernanke said that if the economy continues to improve, the asset-purchasing program could start winding down towards the end of 2013, and end in 2014.
Reflecting the optimism, the Fed reduced its unemployment forecasts to 7.25 percent by the end of 2013, 6.65 percent by end-2014 and 6 percent by end-2015.
However, Bernanke said that interest rate hikes are still "far in the future".
"The FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] was more hawkish than we had expected," Goldman Sachs economists Jan Hatzius and Sven Jari Stehn said in a note published late Wednesday.
"Our takeaway is that the risk to our forecast of quantitative easing tapering starting in December has increased," they said.
On Thursday, news that manufacturing activity in China hit a nine-month low in June exacerbated a sell-off in Asian markets. Japan's benchmark Nikkei stock index tumbled 1.7 percent and gold prices extended their falls to hit a one-month low.
The latest weekly initial claims report will likely garner the most market attention on Thursday, given the Fed's focus on unemployment as an indicator of whether the economy is improving. Economists polled by Reuters forecast first-time claims reached 340,000 last week, up on the previous week's 334,000 claims.
Also out on Thursday are sales numbers for existing homes, the Conference Board's latest leading indicators and the flash estimate of the Markit manufacturing PMI (Purchasing Manufacturers' Index) for June.
In corporate news, IHS (IHS), Kroger (KR) and Rite Aid (RAD) will report quarterly earnings before the start of U.S. trade on Thursday. Oracle (ORCL) and Tibco Software (TIBX) will report after the end of trade.
Microsoft (MSFT) shares will be in focus on Thursday, after press reports that the tech giant had planned to acquire Finland's Nokia (NOK), but talks had broken down.
In addition, Microsoft announced a major change to its Xbox One, late on Wednesday, saying it will no longer require an internet connection to play offline games. It also dropped all restrictions on trading games, and did away with region-locking restrictions.
Also, Facebook (FB) is hosting a press event at its headquarters on Thursday. While the social network has not confirmed a product launch, it is widely expected it will announce a video function for its photo-sharing app, Instagram.
In the bond markets, the Treasury will sell $7 billion of 30-year TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities), while the Fed is due to purchase $2.75-$3.5 billion of 23-30-year U.S. Treasurys.
—By CNBC's Katy Barnato