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Futures hold sharp gains after jobless claims report

U.S. stock index futures held their sharp gains Thursday, as Wall Street cheered upbeat economic data from China and Europe and a better-than-expected jobless claims report.

On the economic front, weekly jobless claims tumbled 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 326,000, dropping to a 5-1/2 year low, according to the Labor Department. Economists surveyed by Reuters expected a reading of 345,000, compared with 343,000 in the prior week. And the number of planned layoffs at U.S. firms declined modestly in July, with employers announcing 37,701 cuts last month, down 4.2 percent from 39,372 in June, according to the report from consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

The reports came ahead of Friday's widely-watched government job report. Analysts polled by Reuters expect to see a gain of 184,000 in July, after a 195,000 uptick in the previous month.

(Read more: July jobs report key to Fed action)

The Institute for Supply Management will release its July manufacturing index and the Commerce Department releases June construction spending data at 10 am.

Stocks ended flat on Wednesday after the Federal Reserve did not signal when it would start tapering its bond-buying program. However, it did raise concerns about rising mortgage rates and flagged the risks of inflation falling too far below its target. In addition, the central bank slightly downgraded its outlook for economic growth. Still, major averages closed out their best July since 2010.

(Read more: Best S&P valuestocks to get through August)

Asian stocks rallied after China's official PMI (purchasing manager's index) data showed the country's manufacturing sector continued to expand in July, defying forecasts of a contraction. But the picture was mixed, with a private gauge of factory activity by HSBC showing an 11-month low of 47.7 in July. Japan's Nikkei rallied to a one-month peak on the news, the Shanghai Composite hit a one-week high and South Korea's Kospi touched a seven-week high.

"Official PMI is more skewed to larger companies, and the HSBC figure reflects the smaller companies and that is where you get this divergence," said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economics research at HSBC.

(Read more: Will China PMI mark the end of negative data surprises?)

In Europe, the European Central Bank kept its main interest rate unchanged at a record low of 0.5 percent, and reiterated that rates would remain at present or lower levels for an extended period of time.

"Labor market conditions remain weak. Looking ahead to the remainder of the year and 2014, euro area growth should benefit from a gradual recovery in global demand," said ECB president Mario Draghi in a press conference following the announcement. "Our monetary policy stance remains accommodative for as long as necessary. We have unanimously confirmed the forward guidance we gave last time."

Euro zone manufacturing activity grew for the first time in two years in July, with the purchasing manager's index (PMI) climbing to 50.3 in July. A reading above 50 indicates an expansion.

And the Bank of England left its interest rates unchanged at 0.5 percent, as expected, under its new governor, Mark Carney.

The second-quarter earnings parade continued with Dow component Procter & Gamble topping Wall Street expectations.

However, fellow Dow component Exxon Mobil traded lower after the oil giant posted a profit that badly missed forecasts as oil and gas output dropped and earnings for its refining business fell. Meanwhile, rival ConocoPhillips rose after the company posted better-thane-expected earnings and lifted its full-year production forecast.

Royal Dutch Shell slumped after the oil company reported a sharp drop in earnings as it suffered from attacks on its operations in Nigeria.

AIG, Kraft Foods and LinkedIn are among notable companies scheduled to post results after the closing bell.

Automakers including General Motors, Ford and Toyota are slated to posts monthly sales figures throughout the day.

—By CNBC's JeeYeon Park (Follow JeeYeon on Twitter: @JeeYeonParkCNBC)

On Tap This Week:

THURSDAY: ISM mfg index, construction spending, natural gas inventories, Fed balance sheet/money supply, auto sales, JCPenney vs. Martha Stewart closing arguments, Michael Kors shareholder mtg, Motorola Moto X launch; Earnings from AIG, Kraft Foods, LinkedIn, Leap Wireless
FRIDAY: Nonfarm payrolls, personal icome & outlays, factory orders, Congress breaks for summer, Dell shareholders mtg, Detroit bankruptcy hearing; Earnings from Chevron, Toyota, Viacom

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