Futures Weak After Economic News, FedEx

Stock futures struggled for direction after news on jobless claims and housing starts and after economic bellwether FedEx posted quarterly results that left investors disappointed.

Initial claims for unemploymentdropped 3,000 for the week ended Dec. 11 to 420,000 from a revised upward 423,000 level the week before. Economists surveyed by Reuters expect claims to fall by 1,000 to 420,000, down from 421,000 last week.

Continuing claims, however, rose to 4.14 million in the week ended December 4, exceeding an estimate of 4.07 by analysts surveyed by Reuters. Continuing claims from the week before were also revised higher.

The four-week moving average of claims fell to 422,750, the sixth straight week of declines.

FedEx earned $1.16 a share for the quarter, well below market estimatesof $1.31, sending shares down about 2 percent in premarket trading. The shipping giant is sign as a gauge of the broader economy because shipping reflects broader business activity.

Housing starts, rose 3.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 555,000 units, slightly more than expected, but permits for new housing disappointed, slipped 4 percent, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. The drop in permits led to a 1 1/2 year low.

In other earnings news, General Mills fell in pre-market trading after reporting disappointing fiscal second-quarter earnings and sales. The foodmaker, however, reaffirmed its full-year guidance.

Winnebago shares soared after reporting better-than-expected earnings on Thursday for the fifth consecutive quarter as sales of recreational vehicles continued to rise.

And Discover Financial Services was higher Thursday after reporting a 4.8 percent gain in profit to $346.5 million in its fiscal fourth fourth quarter, or 64 cents a share. The company benefited from a boost in spending by consumers and expansion of its non-lending business lines.

Research in Motion and Oracle will report earnings after the bell.

In the financial sector, Lehman creditors filed a rival reorganization plan saying the proposal filed by Lehman in March favors big creditors and banks.

Bank of America, the largest bank by assets, has initiated potential settlement discussionswith several mortgage investors, the Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday.

In Europe, stocks were mixed, after results of a bond auction in Spain saw yields jumping, albeit on strong demand.

European Union leaders meet later Thursday to discuss ways to solve the debt crisis, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the debate over issuing common euro zone bonds was settled.

In Asia, S&P raised China’s long-term sovereign credit rating to AA- from A+ citing more stable macroeconomic conditions and strong foreign exchange reserves.

In U.S. politics, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showedPresident Barack Obama is leading prospective Republican challengers for 2012 and benefiting from the tax-cut compromise he has struck with Republican leaders.