Stocks were set to open little changed on Thursday as a government report pointing to some stabilization in consumer spending overshadowed more bleak news on the labor market.
Sales at U.S. retailers fell by an unexpectedly small margin in February. Consumer spending is a crucial pillar of corporate profits, accounting for at least two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.
I think we're starting to see the bottom in the numbers, just because they've been down for so long, said Dan Faretta, senior market strategist at Lind-Waldock, a retail brokerage, in Chicago. The numbers have been so bad for so long that this is good news, and good news in this market is a positive thing.
Even so, there was likely to be some caution as another government report showed the number of U.S. workers staying on jobless benefits after a first week of aid rose to a record in the week to February 28 as the recession continued to slam the labor market.
Stocks rising before the bell in the wake of the retail sales data included Wal-Mart Stores
A day after Wall Street chalked up its first 2-day advance in a month, appetite for riskier assets seemed to wane as some investors fled to gold, pushing the metal above $900 an ounce.
Safe-haven buying also propped U.S. Treasury debt prices.
S&P 500 futures rose 0.50 points and were about even with 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 gained 6 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures dipped 3.25 points.
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(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by James Dalgleish)