US stocks seen higher after upbeat global economic data

U.S. stock index futures signaled a slightly higher open on Thursday, as traders digested the latest weekly jobless claims data and some upbeat manufacturing numbers out of China and the euro zone.

The latest jobless claims report showed a rise in initial claims to 336,000, a bit higher than the 330,000 economists were looking for and 13,000 above the prior week's reading.

Financial data firm Markit said its "flash," U.S. manufacturing purchasing managers index rose to 53.9, its best showing since March, and just below economists' forecast of 54.0. The index stood at 53.7 in July. A reading above 50 indicates expansion.

In global economic data, HSBC's preliminary reading of Chinese PMI for August crossed the key 50-level for the first time in four months thanks to a rebound in new orders. The data was the latest sign of stabilization in China, and boosted sentiment after July's reading of 47.1, which marked an eleven-month low.

"China's manufacturing growth has started to stabilize on the back of modest improvements in new business and output. This is mainly driven by the initial filtering through of recent fine-tuning measures and companies' restocking activities," said Qu Hongbin, the co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC.

(Read more: China a 'stallion' amid emerging market turmoil)

Better-than-expected Purchasing Managers' Index numbers from China, Germany and the euro zone helped pare back earlier losses incurred when minutes from the Federal Reserve's latest policy meeting provided little indication as to when it might start reducing its asset purchasing program.

In Europe, the German DAX surged over 1 percent after Germany's PMI for August climbed to 53.4, up from 52.1 in July. Broader euro zone PMI data also beat expectations, with the composite number rising to 51.7 in August, up from 50.5.

"They're certainly good numbers, and we've been seeing this for the last four or five months in Europe," Richard Jerram, chief economist at the Bank of Singapore, told CNBC. "It does seem that as the headwinds from fiscal tightening fade, then the economies are starting to lift."

(Read more: Euro zone flash PMI at highest level since June 2011)

Gains in global markets were limited, however, by ongoing uncertainty as to when the Fed will start tapering its massive stimulus program. Minutes from the central bank's last policy meeting, released on Wednesday, showed the Fed is preparing to start tapering, but provided little indication as to when it might do so.

The minutes triggered immediate selling in stocks and bonds on Wednesday, and U.S.stocks tumbled in the final hour of trade to close near session lows, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average posting its sixth-straight day of losses.

In the absence of clarity as to when tapering might start, markets have concluded the Fed is likely to do so come September, said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at the Lindsey Group.

"I think while they didn't specifically mention anything about September, by not pulling back from the possibility of September, people are concluding it is September," he said.

The annual Fed symposium will start in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Thursday evening. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will break with tradition and not attend this year, and there will be plenty of speculation at the meeting as to who will replace him in January.

(Read more: Fed's hawkish message a lever for rates)

Retailers in focus

Retailers were struggling this morning following a weak earnings report from teen retailer Abercrombie and Fitch, which badly missed Wall Street expectations on both earnings and revenue. Shares tumbled nearly 20 percent in early trading.

Sears Holdings also got slammed after reporting a wider-than-expected loss of $1.46 a share, sending its stock down more than 4 percent.

Elsewhere, J.C. Penney announced a short-term stockholder rights plan. "The plan, which has a term of one year, is designed to protect against any potential future use of coercive or abusive takeover techniques and to help ensure that the Company's stockholders are not deprived of the opportunity to realize the full and fair value of their investment," the retailer said in a statement.

(Read more: Savile Row tailors battle with Abercrombie & Fitch)

Turning to technology, Hewlett-Packard shares were lower in the early going after the company reported a decline in its enterprise group revenue and announced an executive team shakeup.

Other companies posting second-quarter results on Thursday before the start of U.S. trade include Dollar Tree, Gamestop, Buckle and Patterson Companies.

—By CNBC's Katy Barnato and Justin Menza