U.S. stocks were poised for a flat open on Thursday after data on the labor market was better-than-expected but showed the overall employment picture remained soft.

New U.S. claims for unemployment benefits dropped 34,000 to a seasonally adjusted 388,000, the lowest reading since early July 2008, the Labor Department said on Thursday. That was well below economists' expectations for 415,000.

The claims numbers are very consistent with the view that employment conditions are improving, but at a very anemic pace, said Hugh Johnson, chief investment officer of Hugh Johnson Advisors LLC in Albany, New York.

Even though this is a good number, even though the decrease is more than estimates to 388,000, it's not very good at this stage of a recovery.

On the penultimate trading day of the year, the S&P 500 <.SPX> is headed for its best December in nearly two decades. The index has gained 6.7 percent so far this month, closing on Wednesday at its highest level since September 8, 2008, and has risen in 17 of the last 20 sessions.

Pending home sales for November are expected at 10 a.m. <1500 GMT>, and are expected to show a 1.5 percent rise.

The Chicago Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), due at 9:45 a.m. (1445 GMT), is expected to have dipped a bit in the December reading, with analysts forecasting a drop to 61.0 from 62.5 the month before.

S&P 500 futures shed 1.1 points and were slightly below 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 lost 5 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 1.75 point.

During Asian trading hours overnight, a survey on Chinese manufacturing showed inflation could be cresting, an early indication that the government will be able to stick to its course of gradual rather than aggressive monetary tightening.

Volume is expected to remain tepid in light of the holiday season and the recent blizzard which blanketed the U.S. Northeast. The storm postponed about $1 billion in holiday retail sales by keeping shoppers away from stores in the days after Christmas, research firm ShopperTrak said. For details, see [nN29280698]

In U.S. corporate news, U.S. health regulators have approved Endo Pharmaceuticals Holding Inc and ProStrakan Group PLC's
Fortesta testosterone gel to treat men with low levels of the hormone.

Endo Pharma shares gained 4.2 percent to $36.70 in premarket.

Lockheed Martin Corp and the U.S. unit of Australia's Austal Ltd won U.S. Navy contracts potentially worth more than $3.5 billion each to design and build up to a combined total of 20 coastal combat ships through 2015. Lockheed shares added 1.2 percent to $69.95 in light premarket trade.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)