U.S. stock index futures strengthened, but remained lower, after the government reported a sharper than expected drop in jobless claims.
The major indexes closed at or near multi-month highs in the previous session with December likely to end with strong gains across the board.
As of the close Wednesday, the Dow rose 5.3 percent for December and 11.1 percent for the year-to-date. The S&P 500 rose 6.7 percent for the month, and nearly 13 percent for the year-to-date. The Nasdaq rose 6.8 percent for December, and 17.5 percent for the year-to-date.
Initial claims for jobless benefits fell to 388,000 for the week ended Dec. 25 from a revised upward 422,000, a 29-month low. Economists surveyed by Reuters had expected claims to fall to between 415,000 and 420,000. The 4-week moving average for claims fell 12,500 to 414,000.
At 9:45 a.m., the December Chicago Purchasing Managers Index of Midwest manufacturing activity will be released, and is expected to drop to 61 from 62.5 in November, according to analysts surveyed by Reuters.
November pending home sales data will be released at 10 a.m. with economists looking for a 1.5 percent rise, according to Reuters. Crude inventory figures will be released at 1 p.m.
In a positive sign for the equity markets, $335 million flowed in to U.S. stock funds for the week ended Dec. 21, with $335 million, while bond funds had outflows of about $4.37 billion. The week before, 2.4 billion flowed out of U.S. equity funds, while $8.6 billion flowed out of bond funds. Analysts expect investors to move into stock fundsas bonds and emerging markets lose favor.
Anadarko Petroleum jumped in pre-market trading after a report in the U.K.'s Daily Mail that BHP Billiton may bid $90-a-share for the oil and natural gas producer.
In health-care news, Endo Pharmaceuticals rose after news the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a gel to treat men with low levels of testosterone.
In global markets, Asian stocks ended mostly higher, but Japanese indexes saw declines. Data showed that Chinese factory inflation eased in December, suggesting the country's government can stick to its gradual monetary tightening policy.
European shares were lower in the wake of the Chinese data. Oil related stocks led the declines.
On the Calendar:
THURSDAY: Chicago PMI, pending home sales, farm prices, money supply, Massey CEO Blankenship retires.
FRIDAY: No major economic data expected.
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