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Stocks little changed ahead of economic reports

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[March 04, 2010]  NEW YORK (AP) -- Investors aren't making any big moves ahead of a crush of data over the next two days that culminates with the monthly jobs report. Stock futures are trading in a narrow range Thursday.

HardwareReports on initial weekly jobless claims and January factory orders and pending home sales are due out Thursday morning. Retailers are also releasing monthly sales reports. The Labor Department then provides its monthly update to unemployment Friday.

European markets were slightly lower as investors await announcements from the European Central Bank and the Bank of England as well as details about a new debt offering from Greece. The central banks are expected to keep rates at current levels, while Greece is trying to sort out budget problems in an effort to contain rampant debt.


A recent rise in stocks has run out of steam over the past couple of days because investors are still uncertain about how strong the economy will grow. Upcoming economic reports, especially the monthly employment data, should give traders the insight they need. High unemployment remains a key stumbling block to a strong, sustained recovery.

Ahead of the opening bell, Dow Jones industrial average futures rose 4, or less than 0.1 percent, to 10,391. Standard & Poor's 500 index futures fell 0.10, or less than 0.1 percent, to 1,118.50, while Nasdaq 100 index futures rose 0.50, or less than 0.1 percent, to 1,852.50.

The weekly jobless claims report is expected to show fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week. Economists polled by Thomson Reuters predict first-time claims fell to 470,000 from 496,000 a week earlier. Claims jumped unexpectedly the previous two weeks, adding to concerns in the market.

The report is due out at 8:30 a.m. EST.

A separate report on factory orders from the Commerce Department is expected to show the industrial sector is continuing to rebound. Economists forecast orders grew 1.8 percent last month after rising 1 percent in January.

The Commerce Department report is due out at 10:00 a.m. EST.

Meanwhile, economists predict an index measuring signed contracts to buy previously occupied homes rose to 97.6 in January, from 96.6 a month earlier. The National Association of Realtors pending home sale index is due out at 10:00 a.m. EST.

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A collapse of the housing market helped push the economy into recession. However, recent reports have shown the sector is stabilizing.

Thursday's reports are still somewhat overshadowed by the looming monthly jobs report on Friday. The Labor Department is expected to say the unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent in February from 9.7 percent in January as employers cut 50,000 jobs. However economists predict both average hourly earnings and average hours worked both rose slightly. Each are considered signs of future jobs growth.

Stocks have barely budged over the past two days as investors prepare for the monthly employment report. The Dow fell 9 points Wednesday, a day after rising two points.

Major indexes retreated Wednesday afternoon from early session highs after the Federal Reserve said economic recovery would be slow. The Fed's beige book report, which measures economic activity on a regional basis, indicated a recovery will be slow because of weak loan demand and a soft job market.

Meanwhile, bond prices were little changed. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, was unchanged at 3.63 percent compared with late Wednesday.

The dollar mostly rose against other major currencies. Gold prices fell slightly.

Overseas, Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.1 percent, Germany's DAX index dropped 0.4 percent, and France's CAC-40 fell 0.1 percent. Nikkei stock average fell 1.1 percent.

[Associated Press; By STEPHEN BERNARD]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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