Stock index futures were wobbly heading up to the market open, heading below fair value after a pair of reports showed only tepid improvements in the jobs market.
The ADP National Employment Report indicated a job loss of 22,000 for January, less than the expectation of 30,000, and consistent with the firm's expectations that the market would see positive job growth in February.
However, many economists are looking for positive numbers from January when the Labor Department releases its monthly nonfarms report Friday. Government hiring of census workers is expected to nudge the number into growth territory, but the ADP report, despite its history of undercounting the government by more than 90,000, indicated that the employment picture remains murky.
Futures initially pared losses but then fell further from their pre-ADP levels.
Earlier, Challenger, Gray & Christmas said employers expected to lay off more than 71,000 workers, the highest level in five months.
The jobs number, in addition to the difficulty of keeping momentum after two consecutive strong rallies, had futures fighting for higher ground.
In early stocks news, McDonald's shares moved 1.3 percent higher in premarket trading after Goldman Sachs added the company to its conviction buy list.
Pfizershares fell about 1 percent after the company released earnings and outlook that were below Wall Street expectations.
Comcast, the prospective new owner of CNBC.com-parent NBC Universal, reported earnings of 33 cents a share that beat Wall Street expectations, causing shares to edge higher premarket.
And Time Warner also beat expectations on the strength of big move releases in the past quarter, sending its shares up less than 1 percent.
Cisco Systems and Yum Brands are the most prominent companies reporting earnings after today's closing bell.
Other economic reports this morning include the weekly report on mortgage applications from the Mortgage Bankers Association at 7 am, and the ISM's non-manufacturing index at 10 am, measuring the strength of the U.S. services economy. The ISM index is expected to rise to 51.0 for January compared to 49.8 for December, marking a return to the growth side of the equation. We'll also get the weekly report on crude oil inventories from the EIA at 10:30 am.
News Corp. could be a stock to watch today, after its quarterly earnings beat Wall Street estimates. MetLifealso beat estimates in its after-the-bell earnings report.
Toyota is back in the news once again, this time for a possible issue with its 2010 Prius. It says dealers have received several dozen complaints about "insufficient braking" and that it's investigating the issue.
The Transportation Department is investigating whether the problem is related to electromagnetic interference, the Wall Street Journal reported on its Web site.
The company's shares continue to be under pressure, losing 3.5 percent premarket. Its US-traded shares are off about 15 percent in the past two weeks.
Fed governor Kevin Warsh will speak to the New York Association For Business Economics today, with his speech scheduled to begin at 1 pm.
AIG says 97 percent of its employees agreed to voluntarily reduce their "retention" bonuses, while in another compensation related story, Bank of America has approved more than $4 billion in 2009 bonus pay for its investment bankers and traders, according to the Wall Street Journal.
- Written by Peter Schacknow, Senior Producer, CNBC Breaking News Desk.