US STOCKS-Futures flat before data that could clarify Fed's plans
* Applied Materials to merge with Tokyo Electron, shares rise
* Facebook shares up on report it could be allowed in China
* Futures: Dow down 7 pts, S&P off 2 pts, Nasdaq up 2 pts
NEW YORK, Sept 24 (Reuters) - U.S. stock index futures were little changed on Tuesday before housing and consumer data that could help investors interpret Federal Reserve officials' comments about the short-term plans for the Fed's stimulus program.
New York Fed President William Dudley said Tuesday he "certainly wouldn't want to rule out" a reduction in the U.S. central bank's bond-buying program later this year. ID:nL2N0HK0BT 3/8
The Fed's $85 billion a month in asset purchases has been instrumental for a rally that has lifted the S&P 500 nearly 20 percent so far this year. Bernanke's plan was to reduce quantitative easing later this year and to end it by about mid-2014 as long as the economy keeps improving as expected.
"There are conflicting reports on the internal discussion in the Fed," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.
"There's a lot of information and that makes the Fed look confused," she said.
Standard & Poor's releases its S&P/Case Shiller Home Price Index for July at 9 a.m. (1300 GMT) and the Conference Board releases its September consumer confidence index at 10 a.m. (1400 GMT).
The data, said Fort Pitt's Forrest, is key for market participants to gauge if housing demand will continue to fuel the economic pickup as it did in the first half of the year, even as mortgage rates have jumped.
S&P 500 futures fell 2 points and were little changed in terms of fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures fell 7 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 2 points.
Facebook shares rose 2 percent to $48.11 in premarket trading after the South China Morning Post reported the online social media giant and other websites deemed sensitive and blocked by the Chinese government will be accessible in a planned free-trade zone in Shanghai.
Shares of Applied Materials rose 4.4 percent in premarket trading after the chipmaker and Tokyo Electron Ltd said they will merge in an all-stock deal, creating a $29 billion company.
German business morale improved for a fifth consecutive month in September in a further sign that Europe's largest economy is staging a recovery, although the data came in slightly below expectations.