Futures flat, traders see strong payrolls number

By @ibtimes on

Stock index futures were mostly unchanged on Friday as upbeat labor market data earlier this week fed investor optimism about the upcoming February payrolls report.

Data showing robust private-sector hiring and an unexpectedly sharp decline in jobless claims have reinforced confidence that the report will be strong. Bets on big gains in payrolls pushed Wall Street to its best one-day rally in three months on Thursday.

The report, due at 8:30 a.m. EST, was expected to show 185,000 jobs added in February, a nine-month high, while the unemployment rate was seen rising to 9.1 percent from 9 percent. In January, 36,000 jobs were added, fewer than had been anticipated.

Anything less than 180,000 is going to be disappointing, while a read above 200,000 will be seen as clear vindication that the economy is moving forward on a stronger path, said John Brady, senior vice president at MF Global in Chicago.

Brady added that given high expectations and recent stock gains, we might need to see something north of 250,000 to see a rally on the number.

The ongoing strife in Libya and its impact on oil prices will be another focus for investors as fighting intensified and rebels advanced toward a major oil terminal.

U.S. April crude rose nearly 1 percent and remained above $100 per barrel while Brent crude futures also was up about 1 percent following a pause in recent gains on Thursday.

Gradual changes in crude today won't have too much of an impact today since unless something changes, oil will be taking a backseat to jobs, Brady said.

S&P 500 futures were up 1.6 points and above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures added 15 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures slipped 1.5 points.

Data on January durable goods and factory orders will be released at 10 a.m. EST, with factory orders seen rising 2 percent. There are no major companies scheduled to report quarterly results on Friday.

Dow component Wal-Mart Stores Inc raised its annual dividend by 21 percent late Thursday.

Robert W. Baird upgraded Intel Corp and other semiconductor stocks, expecting order trends for semiconductors in personal computers and wireless infrastructure to rebound in the second half of 2011.

A federal judge said late Thursday he would approve the bankruptcy plan for the Old GM, wrapping up one of the most complex Chapter 11 cases in U.S. history and paving the way for a distribution of General Motors Co stock and warrants to creditors.

Optimism ahead of the payrolls report gave Wall Street its second straight day of gains on Thursday, though on weak volume, and the put-to-call ratio in the options market didn't change much as traders continued to hedge against a potential drop in the market.

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

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