Stocks Slip Amid Retail Crush

Wal-Mart's soggy March keeps expectations low.
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Stocks eased early Thursday as traders weighed more legal headaches for

Merck

(MRK) - Get Report

and hunkered down for a major helping of chain store sales.

Index futures recently showed the

S&P 500

trading a point below fair value, while the Nasdaq 100 was set for a 1.5-point decline. The 10-year Treasury bond was off 6/32 in price to yield 4.87%, while the dollar fell against the yen and euro.

Merck was down 3% late Wednesday after a jury in New Jersey awarded $4.5 million in damages to a man who claimed Vioxx caused his heart attack. Another man's claims were rejected. The verdict is the first in litigation where plaintiffs took Vioxx for more than 18 months, the period after which Merck has acknowledged safety issues.

U.S. retailers are reporting results for March, with expectations tempered after

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

reported a paltry 1.3% rise in same-store sales on Saturday. The shift of Easter into April is expected to be a negative factor.

Teen retailers

Hot Topic

(HOTT)

and

Aeropostale

(ARO)

reported lower same-store sales late Wednesday.

Thursday's economic calendar consists of initial jobless claims for last week, the last big piece of evidence before Friday's report on March employment. Economists are looking for a 300,000-person rise in first-time benefit applications at 8:30 a.m. EDT, and a gain of 190,000 new jobs in tomorrow's payroll report.

Energy prices continued to trend higher after the Energy Department reported a steep decline in gasoline inventories Wednesday morning. In electronic Nymex trading, May crude was recently up 60 cents to $67.67 a barrel, while gasoline futures added 3 cents to $1.98 a gallon.

Overseas markets were mixed, with London's FTSE 100 adding 0.1% to 6053 and Germany's Xetra DAX losing 0.1% to 6024. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei rose 1.4% overnight to 17,489, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 1.9% to 16,411.

To view David Peltier's video take on today's premarket action, click here

.

U.S. stocks had a second solid session on Wednesday, as

Apple's

(AAPL) - Get Report

10% jump paced the tech sector. Since Monday, the

Dow

is up 0.8%, the S&P 500 is up 1.1% and the

Nasdaq Composite

is up 1%.

Among companies,

Bed Bath & Beyond

(BBBY) - Get Report

said fourth-quarter earnings rose 9% from a year ago to $197.9 million, or 67 cents a share, beating estimates by 2 cents. Sales of $1.69 billion were also stronger than expected.

Security software provider

Websense

(WBSN)

guided first-quarter sales lower Wednesday. The company expects to post $42.3 million to $42.5 million on the top line; analysts were looking for $43.1 million.

Research in Motion

(RIMM)

will report fourth-quarter results after the bell. Analysts are looking for earnings of 67 cents a share on sales of $567 million.

In early research, Bank of America lowered

Warner Music

(WMG) - Get Report

to neutral from buy, citing a 40%-plus runup in the shares since the end of October.