Stocks fell at the open on Thursday as data on the U.S. labor market did little to counter concerns about weakness in the global economy after soft manufacturing data in the euro zone and China.

The HSBC flash purchasing managers index showed China's manufacturing sector activity shrank in March for a fifth successive month while the March Markit's Eurozone Composite PMI showed further contraction, led by a decline in French and German factory activity.

The data greatly reduced hopes the euro zone could sidestep a recession while indicating China's slowdown has yet to wane.

European equity markets weakened for a fourth straight session, heading for their longest down run in four months as weak economic data re-ignited concerns about the strength of global demand while shares in Asia relinquished most of the earlier gains following the data. <.EU>

The pan-European FTSE Eurofirst 300 <.FTEU3> fell 1.1 percent to 1,079.61 and the euro shed 0.4 percent.

U.S. Labor Department data showed new U.S. claims for unemployment benefits dropped to a fresh four-year low last week, providing more evidence the domestic economy continues to improve, but were not enough to adjust investor expectations higher.

With France and Germany's PMI coming in so low - they have been the catalyst that has been holding Europe together so it's a little bit of fear for some of the market participants, said Brad Thompson, chief investment officer at Stadion Money Management in Watkinsville, Georgia.

A lot of the growth expectations economically, from a domestic standpoint have been priced in this recent trend, so the risk right now is still Europe.

The market has been resilient recently and able to rebound off sluggish starts to the session, but Thursday's trading could represent the first significant test for the S&P 500 to hold the 1,400 support level which it has held the past five days.

Other U.S. data expected later include the FHFA January home price index, at 10 a.m. (1400 GMT) as well as February leading indicators, also due at 10 a.m.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dropped 56.38 points, or 0.43 percent, to 13,068.24. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> lost 8.31 points, or 0.59 percent, to 1,394.58. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> fell 15.22 points, or 0.49 percent, to 3,060.10.

Transports fell, pulled lower by FedEx Corp , which dropped 2.2 percent to $93.73 after the world's second-largest package delivery company reported a higher quarterly profit warned that it had lowered its expectations for the rest of this year due to Europe's weak economy. The Dow Jones Transportation average <.DJT> lost 1.7 percent.

Dollar General Corp advanced 2.3 percent to $45.77 after the discount retailer posted higher holiday-quarter earnings and sales as more shoppers came in and spent more per visit.

ConAgra Foods Inc dipped 0.6 percent to $26.21 after it reported a higher-than-expected quarterly profit, helped by price increases, but stood by its full-year target.

McDonald's Corp's lost 0.5 percent to $96.20 after the world's biggest hamburger chain said Chief Executive Jim Skinner is retiring after more than seven years at the helm.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Theodore d'Afflisio and James Dalgleish)