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Stock-index futures held on to gains after weekly jobless claims came in close to expectations, and traders weighed a slew of corporate earnings and headlines regarding Europe's sovereign debt crisis.
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Trading has been particularly volatile over the past two weeks; indeed, the Dow has closed in opposing directions for nine-straight sessions. The blue-chip index is 0.63% in negative territory as of Wednesday's close, but has been teetering on the breakeven point for the year.
Earnings season is in full swing with almost half of all Dow components and more than 20% of the S&P 500 reporting this week.
American Express (NYSE:AXP) posted earnings that topped expectations, and sales that met forecasts. AT&T's (NYSE:T) quarterly revenue missed analysts' expectations, while its bottom-line matched estimates.
Technology heavyweight Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is set to report after the closing bell.
Also on the corporate front, Silver Lake Partners, Microsoft and others are working on a bid for struggling technology firm Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), the Wall Street Journal reported.
There are several key economic reports slated for release Thursday.
New claims for unemployment benefits fell to 403,000 from 409,000 the week prior, but checked in higher than the 400,000 economists had been expecting. Claims have been hovering about the 400,000 level for months, and represent one of many gauges that suggest the labor market is still struggling.
Sales of previously-occupied single-family homes are anticipated to have slipped 1.8% to 4.9 million in September. Data released this week on the market for new homes have topped expectations. Still, the housing market has struggled with a glut of supply, depressed prices, and still-tight consumer lending conditions.
The Philadelphia Federal Reserve's read on the manufacturing sector in the mid-Atlantic region will show continued contraction, but at a slower pace, according to economists estimates. The release follows a report from the New York Fed that showed contraction in that region.
"The European sovereign debt crisis affects investors everywhere."
Market participants are paying close attention to Europe, where policymakers are struggling to craft a unified solution to tackle the 17-member currency bloc's debt crisis. A report from the Journal suggesting the European bailout fund, called the European Financial Stability Facility, would only be able to provide first-loss insurance on sovereign debt instead of direct guarantees spooked traders worldwide, pushing global shares into the red. The Journal also said the EFSF may not be able to use bonds it buys as collateral to borrow from the European Central Bank. Both of those developments, economists say, limit the power of the EFSF.
"The European sovereign debt crisis affects investors everywhere," analysts at HSBC wrote in a research note, adding the crisis is "hugely complex."
Officials meet on October 23, but it remains unclear whether a firm solution will come out of that meeting.
The euro rose 0.23% to $1.38, while the dollar fell 0.17% against a basket of world currencies. European shares were roughly 1% to the downside.
Energy markets were slightly lower despite a weaker dollar. Light, sweet crude fell 16 cents, or 0.19%, to $85.95 a barrel. Wholesale RBOB gasoline dipped less than a penny to $2.67 a gallon.
In metals, gold dropped $24.20, or 1.5%, to $1,623 a troy ounce. Silver slid 54 cents, or 1.6%, to $30.75 a troy ounce.
Yields on government debt were slightly lower. The benchmark 10-year Treasury note yielded 2.162% from 2.164%. Bond yields move in the opposite direction of prices.
The Euro Stoxx 50 fell 0.8% to 2,311, the English FTSE 100 slid 0.7% to 5,413, and the German DAX dipped 0.92% to 5,859.
In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 dropped 1% to 8,682 and the Chinese Hang Seng tumbled 1.8% to 18,983.