Another round of better-than-expected employment figures did little to assuage investors as stock futures pointed to a negative open for Wall Street.
The Labor Department reported 434,000 new jobless claims last week, a gain of 1,000 but less than expected. The four-month moving average, which smooths out volatility from the weekly numbers, hit a 16-month low.
Futures stubbornly remained lower, however, as the dollar hit a four-month high against the yen. The losses came even amid some startlingly positive holiday sales numbers from the nation's leading retailers.
After a bullish opening session for 2010 on Monday, investors have taken a conservative route the past two days as they await Friday morning's release of the December employment report. Tuesday and Wednesday saw little movement for the major averages, with investors essentially yawning at normally market-moving releases like the December Federal Open Market Committee minutes.
Among December sales numbers from major chain stores, Costco reported a 9 percent increase in same-store sales for the month. That's above analyst estimates of 7.9 percent.
And Limited Brands shares rose nearly 5 percent on positive news out of its December sales caused the company to raise its outlook.
Among other companies reporting solid sales, Macy's gained 3 percent, Aeropostale was up 3.4 percent and Sears Holding soared more than 14 percent.
Outside retail, Bank of America was up 1 percent premarket as Credit Suisse upgraded the company to outperform from neutral, saying BofA is the "cheapest" of the large-cap banks it covers.
Alcoa shares fell more than 2.5 percent after Citigroup cut the Dow component to hold from buy. The downgrade comes just four days before the aluminum giant kicks off fourth-quarter earnings reports and was based on valuation and currency headwinds.
Homebuilder Lennar reported its first quarterly profit in three years, sending shares 7.3 percent higher premarket.
In other stocks news, Vivus shares jumped 5 percent after the company reported positive test results for its sleep apnea drug.
Bed Bath & Beyond could be a stock to watch today, as the retailer's latest quarterly earnings handily beat estimates and it gives a bullish full year outlook.
The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is already generating some headlines: Microsoft has unveiled a Windows-based tablet computer made by Hewlett-Packard and Sony said holiday season sales beat its forecasts.