NEW YORK – Stock index futures were flat on Thursday, with investors again finding few reasons to buy amid weak results from retail giant Wal-Mart and tensions in the Middle East.
Futures were off their highs of the session, continuing a trend of equities having difficulty holding onto gains. Futures had also indicated gains Wednesday morning, but stocks turned lower midday and ended down more than 1 percent.
Eroding gains in Dow futures, Wal-Mart Stores fell 3.2 percent to $69 in premarket trading after reporting third-quarter revenue that missed expectations and saying macroeconomic conditions continued to pressure its customers.
"This is troubling because it flies in the face of other retail data we've seen lately, which has been positive," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst, Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh. "There's not much out there convincing investors that things are getting any better."
Target Corp eased back to $61.36 before the bell even as the company reported higher quarterly profit.
Overseas, Israel launched a major offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza, killing the military commander of Hamas in an air strike and threatening an invasion of the enclave. Egypt said it recalled its ambassador from Israel in response.
Crude oil may be the most directly impacted by the tensions in the region, with any disruption to oil supply leaving crude vulnerable to a spike in prices. Brent crude rose 1 percent and is up 4.7 percent over the past two weeks.
"Nothing over there seem stable, and investors are concerned other countries could be pulled into the conflict. You're going to see oil jump on that threat," Forest said.
S&P 500 futures were flat but still slightly above 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 fell 25 points and Nasdaq 100 futures rose 2.75 points.
With Wednesday's drop, both the Dow and Nasdaq ended at their lowest levels since late June. The S&P 500 is down 5.1 percent in the six sessions since election night. Wednesday marked the benchmark index's lowest close since July 25.
Investors may seek bargains at these levels, and a round of stronger economic data could prove to be a catalyst, but many analysts say strong gains may be hard to come by until at least one of the many global macroeconomic headwinds have been resolved.
"There's all this uncertainty out there, and the market is unbalanced because those who want to buy can be very discriminate about the price they want to buy at," Forest said.
The market will also watch the latest economic data, with weekly jobless claims, October consumer prices and a November read on New York manufacturing all due out at 8:30 a.m. (1330 GMT). The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank releases its November business activity survey at 10 a.m.
Claims are seen rising by 20,000 to 375,000 while consumer prices are seen up 0.1 percent, compared with a 0.6 percent rise in September, according to a Reuters poll. The Empire State manufacturing survey is seen coming in at -6.7, compared with -6.16 in October. The Philly Fed survey is seen dropping to 2 from 5.7 in October.
While the President and Congress are unlikely to reach a definitive agreement for weeks, investors will continue to monitor the situation regarding the fiscal cliff, a series of mandated tax increases and spending cuts will start to take effect early next year that could push the U.S. economy into a recession.
President Barack Obama Wednesday reiterated his position that marginal tax rates would have to rise to tackle the nation's deficits. Taxes on capital gains and dividends also could rise as part of the negotiations, pushing investors to sell this year and pay lower taxes on their gains.
(Editing by Theodore d'Afflisio)