Stocks Steady Amid Retail Deluge

Natural gas falls below $10 per million British thermal units.
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Stocks drifted in a narrow range early Thursday as traders sought direction from a key round of holiday chain-store updates.

Index futures recently showed the

S&P 500

trading half a point below fair value, while the Nasdaq 100 was set for a 1-point gain. The 10-year Treasury bond was down 5/32 in price to yield 4.37%, five basis points above the two-year note, while the dollar rose against the yen and euro.

Oil prices were flat ahead of the Energy Department's weekly storage update, which is expected to show that crude inventories fell by 1.2 million barrels last week, according to a

Reuters

survey. Distillates are expected to rise by 700,000 barrels in the report while gasoline inventories are seen up by 400,000 barrels.

The February crude contract was recently up a penny at $63.43 a barrel. Natural gas futures eased 24 cents to $9.95 a barrel.

Overseas markets were mixed, with London's FTSE 100 recently adding 0.1% to 5720 and Germany's Xetra DAX losing 0.1% to 5518. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei rose 0.4% overnight to 16,425, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng gained 0.5% to 15,271.

Trading Thursday will be influenced by expectations surrounding tomorrow's release of the December employment report. Economists are currently expecting the Labor Department update to show the U.S. added 200,000 nonfarm jobs last month while the unemployment rate held steady at 5%, according to

Bloomberg.

Takeover talk was swirling around the market Thursday morning, with the

Wall Street Journal

reporting that

Computer Sciences

(CSC)

is being eyed by

Hewlett-Packard

(HPQ) - Get Report

and private equity giant Blackstone. The target had previously sought a price of $65 a share from

Lockheed

(LMT) - Get Report

in a deal that ultimately fell apart.

The newspaper also reported that Blackstone, Texas Pacific, Bain and Silver Lake are finalizing an $8 billion buyout of

Affiliated Computer

(ACS)

. An announcement could come Monday.

Among the early retail returns were

Costco

(COST) - Get Report

, which said December same-store sales rose 7% from a year ago, in line with estimates.

Urban Outfitters

(URBN) - Get Report

said December comps rose 6%, while

Limited

(LTD)

posted a 1% year-over-year decline; estimates had called for an increase.

Satellite radio provider

XM

(XMSR)

updated subscriber totals and estimates late Wednesday. Washington-based XM said it currently has 6 million subscribers to its pay-radio service, reflecting 2.7 million net additions in 2005. It expects to end 2006 with more than 9 million subscribers.

Main competitor

Sirius

(SIRI) - Get Report

said it ended 2005 with 3.32 million subscribers, reflecting additions of 2.17 million in 2005.