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Futures Rise After Jobless Claims, CPI

U.S. stock index futures gained after news that jobless claims dropped to 385,000 and consumer inflation was in line with expectations, and despite a slight drop in industrial production.

Futures already were higher as the market clawed back from a steep selloff Wednesday when the S&P 500 erased all its year-to-date gains amid concerns over Japan’s nuclear crisis.

Industrial production fell 0.1 percent, more than expected, as a result of drops in gas and electricity production due to unseaonably warm weather, the Federal Reserve said. But, the Fed said, factory production rose 0.4 percent as more cars, appliances, computers and furniture were produced.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell 16,000 last week, while the four-week average for claims dropped to 386,250, the lowest level since July 2008, according to the Labor Department. The news provided further assurances the job market is stabilizing.

Meanwhile, U.S. consumer prices gained 0.5 percent in February, up from a 0.4 percent rise in January, the Labor Department said. That's the largest gain the CPI since June 2009.

Core CPI, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, rose 0.2 percent in February, the same pace as January. Disappointing wholesale inflation numbers were released Wednesday.

Elsewhere in economic news, leading indicators and the Philadelphia Fed survey will be reported at 10 a.m.

The markets appeared to be ready to start Thursday's session in a markedly different direction than Wednesdsay, when all the major indices fell to their lows for the year. Investors Wednesday reacted to the increasingly worrisome news over the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, sending stocks higher and lower depending on developments.

CNBC - Disaster in Japan - Japan Earthquake and Tsunami
CNBC - Disaster in Japan - Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

“Japan’s nuclear-plant problems are getting worse, and nobody knows what the implications are of that trend," said John Prestbo, editor and executive director, Dow Jones Indexes. "People naturally withdraw from situations like this, which is what is happening in the stock market. When there is some sense of resolution in Japan—even if the news is not all good—investors will settle down and markets will get back to business.”

The yen will also be in focus Thursday after surging to a new record high against the dollar in late afternoon trading Wednesday.

And developments in Bahrain and Libya will keep oil supply in the spotlight Thursday. Bahrain arrested at least six hardline opposition leaders, a day after its crackdown on protests by the Shi'ite Muslim majority drew rare US criticism and raised fears of a regional conflict.

Middle East Turmoil
Middle East Turmoil

In Libya, government soldiers battled rebelson the road to the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi on Thursday as the United States raised the possibility of air strikes to stop Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

Oil prices, meanwhile, began soaring again, rising more than 2 percent. London Brent crude rose above $113 a barrel, while U.S. light sweet crude rose above $100 a barrel. Also, the government reported Tuesday that crude oil inventories in the U.S. rose to 1.75 million barrels, while gasoline inventories fell by 4.2 million barrels.

of Federal Express jumped after reporting earnings that fell slightly shy of expectations, but provided a forecast that was better-than-expected.

Nike will release earnings after the close.

And in Europe, the Swiss National Bank kept interest rates on holdThursday despite an overall improved outlook for the economy, citing risks from Europe's debt crisis and the nuclear disaster in Japan.

On Tap Next Week:

THURSDAY: Industrial production, leading indicators, Philadelphia Fed survey, natural gas inventories, money supply; after-the-bell earnings from Nike.
FRIDAY: Quadruple witching; before-the-bell earnings from Allianz.

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