Stock futures point to modest gains at open
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange February 21, 2012. Reuters

U.S. stock index futures pointed to a slightly higher open Wednesday ahead of the Census Bureau’s latest data on housing starts and building permits and the Federal Reserve's Federal Open Market Committee's meeting minutes.

Futures on the Dow Jones Industrial Average were up 0.05 percent, futures on the Standard & Poor's 500 Index were up 0.06 percent and those on the Nasdaq 100 Index were up 0.09 percent.

Investors are likely to focus on the latest U.S. Census Bureau housing starts and building permits data, due to be released before the markets open.

The monthly number of housing starts is used to measure the change in the annualized number of residential buildings that began construction each month. It is expected to decline to 915,000 in January after surging 12.1 percent to 954,000 in December.

The monthly number of new building permits, which measures the change in the number of new building permits issued by the government each month, is likely to rise to 915,000 in January, up from 909,000 in December.

Fed watchers are also expected to pore over the release of the Fed's FOMC minutes from its Jan. 29 to Jan. 30 meeting, which are due to be released later Wednesday, for signs of the Fed's stance on to new economic stimulus measures and interest rates. The December FOMC minutes showed that the policymakers were divided on expanding the Fed’s balance sheet beyond 2013.

In December's FOMC minutes, a few members expressed the view that the ongoing asset purchases would likely be warranted until about the end of 2013. Several members of the FOMC thought that the Fed's bond purchasing program should be slowed or stopped by the end of the year, citing concerns about the financial stability or the size of the balance sheet.

“Fed policymakers espouse a range of views on the cost/benefit ratio of continued asset purchases, the majority, in our view, see a net benefit and are unlikely to want to end the program before seeing some substantial improvement in the job market. So, we do not believe that the Fed wants to send any signal that it is currently considering a change in its asset purchase program,” a note from Credit Agricole said.

Market participants are also expected to focus on the latest Producer Price Index data, which are used to measure the change in the price of goods sold by manufacturers. The index, a leading indicator of consumer price inflation, is expected to rise 0.4 percent in January on a monthly basis after a 0.3 percent decrease the previous month.

On the corporate front, shares of Dell Inc. (NASDAQ: DELL) and Herbalife Ltd. (NYSE: HLF) fell after the companies reported their quarterly earnings late Tuesday. Dell’s fourth quarter net profit plunged to $530 million or $0.30 per share from $764 million or $0.43 per share in the same period last year. Adjusted net profit was $702 million or $0.40 per share, down from $913 million or $0.51 per share, last year.

On Tuesday, U.S. stocks ended higher as an ongoing surge in merger activity and an improvement in German investor sentiment buoyed markets. The S&P 500 advanced 0.73 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index rose 0.7 percent, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at its highest level since Oct. 2007.

European stock markets saw mixed trading. London's FTSE 100 declined 0.06 percent, France's CAC-40 rose 0.04 percent and Germany's DAX gained 0.27 percent.

Asian stock markets advanced Wednesday as a strong global equity market performance and the yen's movements boosted economic optimism across the region. Japan’s Nikkei gained 0.84 percent, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 0.71 percent and the Chinese Shanghai Composite advanced 0.60 percent.