Futures fell sharply Thursday after a surprise jump in jobless claims, a disappointing signal on the employment front ahead of Friday's jobs report.
Initial jobless claims rose by 8,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 480,000. Economists had been expecting the gauge to drop by 10,000, according to the latest Reuters survey.
Stocks finished mixed Wednesday following a strong two-day rally.
Asian stocks finished lower, with Toyota shares extending their fall on new complaints about braking problems in its third-generation Prius. The world's biggest carmaker raised its annual forecast, despite its recall woes.
Toyota said the recall would cost it up to $2 billion this quarter but raised its full-year forecast. Shares continued to fall, though, losing nearly 1 percent in premarket trading.
The market was also digesting same-store sales from leading retailers.
Big-box retailer Costco reported a better-than-expected 8 percent gain in January sales, but the numbers were seen as a bit of a disappointment and shares edged lower.
Competitor Target missed its estimates and saw shares slip more than 2 percent.
MasterCard shares fell 2.7 percent premarket after the company posted earnings results that disappointed investors.
Its man competitor, Visa, saw its shares rise nearly 3 percent after its earnings reports after the bell on Wednesday beat expectations.
Royal Dutch Shell shares also fell about 2.5 percent after the company said it was being hurt by slow oil demand and abundant supply that it expected to continue through 2010.
More data on the employment picture will come Thursday morning, as the Labor Department releases the weekly report on initial jobless claims at 8:30 am New York time. Economists predict that claims will come in at 460,000 compared to last week's reading of 470,000.
Also at 8:30 am, new figures on non-farm productivity will be out. Consensus forecasts call for productivity to have grown at an annual rate of 7.0 percent during the fourth quarter, compared with an 8.1% growth rate in the third quarter. At 10 am, December factory orders are expected to show a 0.3% increase, compared to November's 1.1 percent rise.
At 10:30 am, the EIA will issue its weekly report on natural gas inventories.
The Bank of England and the European Central Bank will have interest rate announcements this morning, at 7 am and 7:45 am respectively. Neither is expected to change benchmark rates but investors will be keen to see what ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet will say about Greece's debt problems and how they can affect the euro zone.
Three companies reporting after-the-bell earnings yesterday are stocks to watch today: Cisco and Yum Brands. All beat estimates, but Yum fell after hours on concerns about international sales.
This morning's earnings calendar also includes the latest numbers from Burger King, Kellogg and Moody's.
Several overseas companies that trade in the U.S. came in with upbeat earnings reports, including Sony, Unilever, and Vodafone.
Monster Worldwide is buying the HotJobs site from owner Yahoo, leaving Monster with only Careerbuilder.com as a major competitor in the online job postings market.
- Written by Peter Schacknow, Senior Producer, CNBC Breaking News Desk.