By Steve Goldstein, MarketWatch
LONDON (MarketWatch) -- U.S. stock futures worked their way higher on Thursday after weekly jobless claims data showed a halt to a two-week run of sharp rises and productivity data was revised up, as a string of retailers reported results.
S&P 500 futures rose 1.8 points to 1,120.4, while Nasdaq 100 futures rose 3.75 points to 1,855.75. Futures on the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 22 points.
U.S. stocks ended slightly lower Wednesday after a late-day drop, as Pfizer reported disappointing results on an Alzheimer's drug and health stocks slipped on President Obama's new call for federal healthcare legislation.TODAY'S INTERNATIONAL MARKET STORIES
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Early data showed the number of people filing for initial unemployment benefits declined by 29,000 in the week ending Feb. 27 to a seasonally adjusted 469,000. That ends a two-week string of sharp increases. The four-week average of initial claims fell by 3,500 to 470,750.
"There is still very little evidence in this weekly, timely data, of any big pickup in hiring outside of some modest improvement. Tomorrow's Feb Payroll figure will also be impacted by the weather," Peter Boockvar, equity strategist at Miller Tabak, wrote in a note.
Meanwhile, productivity increased at a 6.9% annual rate in the fourth quarter, revised up from the 6.2% reported a month ago, while the third quarter was revised up to a 7.8% annual rate from 7.2% presently.
Still to come is data on factory orders at 10 a.m. ET.
Retailers were busy announcing same-store sales, and Pier 1 Imports /quotes/comstock/13*!pir/quotes/nls/pir (PIR 6.98, +0.15, +2.20%) and Urban Outfitters /quotes/comstock/15*!urbn/quotes/nls/urbn (URBN 34.22, +0.82, +2.46%) also reported fourth-quarter earnings ahead of estimates.
Shares of PetSmart /quotes/comstock/15*!petm/quotes/nls/petm (PETM 30.04, +2.33, +8.41%) jumped nearly 11% in preopen trade after quarterly results beat analysts' estimates and the company said it sees a strong 2010.
Wal-Mart /quotes/comstock/13*!wmt/quotes/nls/wmt (WMT 53.95, +0.29, +0.54%) announced it's raising its dividend by 11% to $1.21 a share in 2011, from $1.09 paid during the 2010 fiscal year.
Boeing /quotes/comstock/13*!ba/quotes/nls/ba (BA 65.32, +0.87, +1.35%) could be in focus after an upgrade to neutral from sell by UBS. Other upgrades include Coca-Cola /quotes/comstock/13*!ko/quotes/nls/ko (KO 54.61, +0.68, +1.26%) , lifted to buy at UBS and Walt Disney /quotes/comstock/13*!dis/quotes/nls/dis (DIS 32.41, +0.77, +2.43%) , raised to buy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
The Bank of England and European Central Bank each held interest rates unchanged at historically low levels, as expected.
European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet on Thursday said the euro-zone's economic recovery remains on track but again warned it could be "uneven."
Trichet said key ECB interest rates remain "appropriate" and inflation expectations remain firmly anchored. He also said the ECB welcomes Greece's fiscal plan.
As earnings season winds down, Ciena /quotes/comstock/15*!cien/quotes/nls/cien (CIEN 13.45, -1.10, -7.56%) shares dropped 8.1% as it reported a widening loss and issued a cautious second-quarter target.
Anheuser-Busch InBev /quotes/comstock/13*!bud/quotes/nls/bud (BUD 49.60, -1.80, -3.50%) fell in Brussels after reporting a smaller-than-forecast rise in adjusted profit and offering cautious 2010 guidance.
Asian shares ended mostly lower Thursday, with Chinese banking and property shares losing ground a day before the mainland's annual National People's Congress amid concerns about policy tightening.
Europe stocks sagged after four winning sessions in a row.
Oil futures were weaker but held above the $80-a-barrel market, while gold futures slipped $4.90 an ounce.
The dollar index /quotes/comstock/11j!i:dxy0 (DXY 80.41, +0.44, +0.55%) was slightly lower.
Steve Goldstein is MarketWatch's London bureau chief.