Here are the most important news, trends and analysis that investors need to start their trading day:
U.S. stock futures rose Thursday, one day after the S&P 500 finished just 1 point shy of last week's record close, while the Nasdaq did finish at another record. The Dow Jones Industrial Average on Wednesday dropped modestly but remained less than 64 points away from its record from earlier this month. Heading into the new trading day, Wall Street watches the government's jobless claims data, coronavirus stimulus talks in Washington and a FDA advisory panel's meeting on Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine.
Even as strong as the Nasdaq's over 40% rise has been in 2020, it's nowhere near the 370% surge this year for bitcoin, which early Thursday shot up to a new all-time high above $23,600. Behind the gains, crypto bulls point to increased demand from institutional investors, looking at bitcoin like gold as a hedge against inflation during the unprecedented U.S. spending to boost the pandemic-stricken economy.
The government on Thursday reported higher-than-expected 885,000 initial jobless claims for the week ending Dec. 12 — the second straight week above 800,000, reflecting the job market's struggles lately as coronavirus cases keep spiking, leading local and state governments to reimpose Covid mitigation measures. The prior week's claims were revised higher to 862,000.
Despite those troubling pandemic trends, the Federal Reserve boosted its economic expectations slightly for the end of the year and for next year, according to the central bank's Summary of Economic Projections released Wednesday afternoon after its final two-day meeting of 2020. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said stock prices are not necessarily high considering the low level of interest rates.
Negotiators on Capitol Hill are nearing agreement on a $900 billion coronavirus relief package, which would deliver additional help to U.S. businesses, a $300-per-week federal unemployment benefit boost, and $600 stimulus checks for most Americans. A deal has remained elusive for months on the first significant legislative response to the pandemic since the landmark $2.2 trillion CARES Act in March. "We're still close and we're going to get there," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Wednesday evening. Lawmakers hope to combine Covid relief with a massive government funding measure. Federal agencies face a partial shutdown this weekend in the absence of an overall spending bill or another stop-gap measure.
Exactly one week after recommending emergency use of Pfizer's Covid vaccine, a key FDA advisory committee is expected to do the same Thursday after it meets on Moderna's vaccine. While the FDA doesn't have to follow the panel's recommendation, it often does as it did last Friday when it cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on an emergency basis.
Possibly bringing another weapon to the fight against the coronavirus could help slow the exploding case count. On Wednesday, there were more than 247,400 new cases in the U.S., the worst single day of the pandemic, and a record 3,656 deaths. Overall, as of Thursday morning, America neared 17 million total cases and exceeded 307,500 deaths.
French President Emmanuel Macron has become the latest world leader to test positive for Covid. The diagnosis was established "as soon as the first symptoms appeared," Macron's office said on Thursday. Macron, who turns 43 next week, will continue to work remotely, the statement added. Other leaders who got the coronavirus, including U.S. President Donald Trump, Britain's Boris Johnson and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, all recovered.
Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force, will publicly receive a vaccine Friday, while President-elect Joe Biden is expected to get a shot as soon as next week. It's unclear when Trump will get vaccinated. Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have all volunteered to go before cameras to get vaccine shots to help build public trust.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow all the developments on Wall Street in real time with CNBC Pro's live markets blog. Get the latest on the pandemic with our coronavirus blog.