By Barbara Kollmeyer, MarketWatch
MADRID (MarketWatch) -- U.S. stock futures were pointing to a softer start for Wall Street on Thursday, with weaker overseas markets setting the tone, while investors await key December sales results from retailers.
Futures for the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 42 points to 10,474, while those for the Nasdaq 100 fell 7.25 points to 1,871.21. Futures for the S&P 500 dropped 5.4 points to 1,127.70.
U.S. stocks nearly stalled at the finish on Wednesday after minutes from the Federal Reserve's last policy-setting meeting pointed to continuing concern about the housing market. The Fed minutes also indicated that recent signs of an improving economy haven't swayed member opinion that recovery will be gradual and inflation will remain tame.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 1.66 points, while the S&P 500 added less than a point, while the Nasdaq Composite fell 7.62 points.
Ahead of Friday's heavy roster of economic data, including the all-important nonfarm payroll figure for December, weekly jobless claims will be released at 8:30 a.m. Eastern. The ADP employment report released Wednesday revealed a loss of 84,000 jobs in the private sector in December, the 23rd decline in a row, but the fewest jobs lost since March 2008.TODAY'S INTERNATIONAL MARKET STORIES
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Economists surveyed by MarketWatch are looking for the government report to say payrolls rose 15,000, the first gain in two years.
Meanwhile, analysts are expecting last-minute shopping and post-holiday bargain hunting will result in positive surprises for U.S. retailers on Thursday. Among the first to report was Costco Wholesale /quotes/comstock/15*!cost/quotes/nls/cost (COST 60.00, +0.77, +1.30%) , which said December same-store sales rose 9%.
"Bargain-hungry consumers that had postponed shopping [hoping] for deals returned to the stores" and also surfaced online, said Morgan Stanley analyst Michelle Clark. They "realized the widespread discounting that characterized 2008 holiday was not to be in 2009. Waiting was no longer an option."
Outside of retailers, stocks in focus for Thursday include Kraft Foods /quotes/comstock/13*!kft/quotes/nls/kft (KFT 28.97, +0.20, +0.70%) and Hershey /quotes/comstock/13*!hsy/quotes/nls/hsy (HSY 36.85, -0.32, -0.86%) . The Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday that Cadbury /quotes/comstock/13*!cby/quotes/nls/cby (CBY 49.77, +0.04, +0.08%) board members have quietly reached out to Hershey to encourage a rival offer in their effort to resist a hostile takeover from Kraft.
In Europe, automakers paced an early dip, though U.K. supermarket chain J Sainsbury climbed on stronger-than-forecast sales. London markets are awaiting an interest-rate decision from the Bank of England at 7 a.m. Eastern. Policymakers aren't expected to make a change to monetary policy, including the central bank's money-creating asset-purchase plan.
Asia markets fell, with China's Shanghai Composite finishing down nearly 2% after the People's Bank of China made a move that raised fears interest rate rises could come sooner than expected.
The dollar rose 0.6% against the yen to 92.90 yen, lifted by comments from Japan's newly appointed top finance minister, Naoto Kan, aimed at talking down the Japanese currency. The dollar was also higher against then euro and the British pound.
Commodities futures were mostly lower, with crude oil futures down 67 cents to $82.50 a barrel, while gold was down $5.40 to $1,131.10 an ounce.
Barbara Kollmeyer is an editor for MarketWatch in Madrid.