U.S. stock index futures were little changed on Thursday as investors awaited economic data for insight on the strength of the economic recovery heading into 2011.

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.

Data on Thursday includes weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. (1330 GMT], which is expected to show initial claims fell to 415,000 from 420,000 the previous week. Pending home sales for November are expected at 10 a.m. <1500 GMT>, and are expected to show a 1.5 percent rise.

Jobless claims will have some impact if it's an outlier because the market is so thin, said Rick Meckler, president of investment firm LibertyView Capital Management, in New York.

But there are lots of reasons to look at jobless reports this time of year and see them as very seasonal.

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 1.7 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 8 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures dipped 1 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.

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.

Elsewhere, Japanese stocks ended the year with a whimper on Thursday as a stronger yen knocked down shares of major exporters, but other markets in Asia rose, cementing solid gains for 2010 led by a near 50 percent rally for Indonesia.

European equities hit their lowest level in more than a week on Thursday as a drop in crude oil prices dragged down energy shares, while a fall in HSBC's China Purchasing Managers' Index hurt market sentiment. <.EU>

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)