Futures Ease Gains After Economic News

Stock index futures slightly eased gains, although they remained strongly higher, after a surprising drop in durable goods orders, and a fall in jobless claims that was mostly expected.

Futures already rose ahead of the open despite mounting concerns in Europe thatPortugal will require a bailoutand after Japan’s Nikkei index slipped on continuing trouble at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The move higher comes a day after the Dow gained 67 points in light volume.

Durable goods in February fell 0.9 percent in February compared with a 3.6 percent rise in January last month, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Ex-transportation, durable goods fell 0.6 percent in February compared with a 3.0 percent drop in January.

Jobless claims, meanwhile, fell by 5,000 last week to 382,000, according to the Labor Department. The four-week moving average dropped to 385,250, the lowest level in more than two-and-a-half years, and the fourth week below 400,000. Economists surveyed by Reuters said claims would fall to 383,000 from 385,000, the level previously reported.

Portugal’s Prime Minister Jose Socrates resigned on Wednesday after parliament rejected his government's latest austerity measures, designed to help Portugal avoid having to seek an international bailout. Many analysts believe a bailout is now inevitable.

European leaders meet in Brussels Thursday. They are not expected to endorse a full package of measures to attack the sovereign debt crisis, despite the fact that they had been expected to do so for months.

"The key at the end of the day is whether Spain comes through this,” Larry Kantor, global head of research at Barclays Capital told CNBC. Kantor expected a resolution to the crisis, but not at this week’s summit.

Moody's Investors Service downgraded debt ratings on 30 Spanish banks, mostly smaller and regional institutions. Moody's said the outlook for the banks remains weak.

Shares of Best Buy gained in pre-market trading after the electronics retailer posted strong quarterly profits thanks to a boost in its mobile business.

Conagra traded mostly flat after reporting quarterly results hurt by rising commodity prices.

On Tap This Week:

THURSDAY: EU summit; natural gas inventories, 10-year TIPS auction, money supply; after-the-bell earnings from Oracle, Research in Motion.
FRIDAY: USDA food prices outlook; GDP revision, corporate profits, and consumer sentiment.

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