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Commentary suggesting the European Central Bank may be hesitant in buying beleaguered eurozone debt overshadowed upbeat U.S. economic data, sending stock-index futures sliding in rocky trading.
As of 9:20 a.m. ET, Dow Jones Industrial Average futures fell 84 points to 12,125, S&P 500 futures slumped 12.8 points to 1,251 and Nasdaq 100 futures slid 17 points to 2,305.
In light of the growing economic headwinds created by the debt crisis, the European Central Bank said that it plans on taking on non-standard measures to buoy the economy. Initially, the action pushed futures higher, but then they dropped as market participants worked to decipher commentary from ECB chief Mario Draghi.
There were hopes that the ECB might enact a massive bond-buying program to ease yields on sovereign debt, however Draghi to some extent quashed those hopes during a session with reporters. Specifically, traders said they were focused on a comment about government bond purchases being limited to enacting monetary policy and that the European Union treaty restricts such other types of bond purchases. However, Draghi came short of explicitly making a ruling either way.
The Central bank also sliced its main refinancing rate by a quarter percentage point to 1%. The rate move was largely anticipated, but markets were less sure if the ECB would take other actions.
European Union leaders are set to begin descending on Brussels on Thursday for a summit that is being billed by many analysts as crucial in staving off a collapse of the euro, a once unthinkable scenario.
The backdrop for the meeting is gloomy: Italian debt yields are less than half a percentage point away from the painful 7% level and in a sign of how real the worries are, the Wall Street Journal reported last night that several European central banks are making contingency plans in case they have to revert to their pre-euro currency. French President Nicholas Sarkozy also said on Thursday that time is running out against the single currency, and that there will be no second chances if a deal isn't reached, according to a report by Reuters.
Traders are hoping for decisive action from European leaders to solve the debt debacle that is now in its second year, and has spread from periphery economies into the core of the European Union. One concept that has been discussed, according to media reports, is forcing closer fiscal ties between eurozone states in a bid to convince the ECB to launch a bond-buying program.
European blue chips rose 0.44% while the euro fell 0.4% higher to $1.3362.
On the U.S. front, the weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department topped expectations on Thursday morning. New claims for unemployment benefits fell last week to 381,000 from an upwardly revised 404,000 the week prior. Economists had expected a smaller drop to 395,000 from an initial reading of 402,000.
Energy markets were mixed. The benchmark crude oil contract traded in New York climbed 14 cents, or 0.19%, to $100.66 a barrel. Wholesale RBOB gasoline fell 0.05% to $2.59 a gallon.
In metals, gold slipped $6.80, or 0.39%, to $1,739 a troy ounce. U.S. government bond prices fell, pushing yields higher. The benchmark 10-year Treasury note yields 2.065% from 2.040%.
European blue chips rose 0.44%, the English FTSE 100 rose 0.29% to 5,563 and the German DAX climbed 0.19% to 6,006.
In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 dropped 0.66% to 8,665 and the Chinese Hang Seng slipped 0.69% to 19,108.