Futures Get Lift From Drop in Jobless Claims

U.S. stock index futures added to gains for the first session of the second quarter Thursday, after a reading on weekly jobless claims came in about in line with expectations.

The Labor Department said weekly jobless claims fell 6,000 to 439,000, just a shade better than expected but enough to fuel investor enthusiasm after a drop in the market Wednesday.

Futures showed little reaction earlier to a report from Challenger Gray & Christmas that planned layoffs for March surged 61 percent. The level remains well below the 2009 rate, the firm pointed out.

European shares were higher with better-than-expected euro zone manufacturing data boosting sentiment. Asian shares closed higher with China's manufacturing sector improving .

Investors will get the all-important March jobs report Friday, despite the U.S. market holiday.

Ahead of that, the Labor Department releases the weekly jobless claims report at 8:30 am New York time Thursday. Economists expect very little change this time around, with a reading of 440,000 compared to last week's figure of 442,000. The monthly report on layoffs from Challenger, Gray, and Christmas is released at 7:30 am.

The ISM's monthly manufacturing index is out at 10 am and is expected to rise to 57.0 for March compared to the February reading of 56.5. Also out at 10 am: construction spending for February, with forecasts calling for a drop of 1.3 percent compared to January's decrease of 0.6 percent.

In corporate news, U.S. automakers will issue their March sales numbers throughout the day, with Ford kicking things off at noon. Those figures are expected by analysts to show strong double-digit gains over a year earlier.

The Energy Department will be out with its weekly report on natural gas inventories at 10:30 am.

Shares of Blackberry maker Research In Motion fell in after-hours trading after its quarterly earnings report lagged expectations Wednesday. Also in the sector, Micron Technology reported its second consecutive quarterly profit after three years of losses, helping its shares gain 4 percent in premarket trading.

RIM shares fell 5.4 percent in premarket trading as Goldman Sachs cut the company to "sell" from "neutral" due to "reduced confidence" in the firm's earnings going forward.

- Written by Peter Schacknow, Senior Producer, CNBC Breaking News Desk.