) -- Believe it or not, there are actually a few data points worth paying attention to on Thursday, the weekly initial jobless claims report and the Chicago PMI.

The initial jobless claim and the ISM Chicago (the name by which the Midwest manufacturing report, the Chicago PMI is also known) have been among the data points providing encouragement for U.S. macroeconomic hawks as 2011 draws to a close.

With Europe expected to be in some level of recession in 2012, the U.S. economy can't just provide signs of optimism in fits and starts; rather, it needs to show sustained improvement.

It was a losing day for the markets on Wednesday with the recent bull trend reversed. The

Dow Jones Industrial Average

shed 1.1%, as the

S&P 500

, down 1.3%, slipped back into the red for the year and a five-day winning streak for the S&P was put to an end.

Even as an Italian bond auction performed better than expected -- dismissing, at least for a day, fears that the yield on Italian debt would surpass the 7% crisis threshold -- the European Central Bank

found a new way to startle investors about the European debt crisis, revealing that lending to eurozone banks surged by 32% in the week ended Dec. 23.

The initial jobless claims number and the Chicago PMI don't need to be heroes on Thursday; they just need to show up and avoid any major negative surprise, because it's less about the last two trading days of 2011 and more about setting the stage for the U.S. economy in 2012.

"Europe will catch us in some form in 2012, so we need these numbers to give us a cushion and a strong end to 201," said Ryan Sweet, senior economist with Moody's Analytics.

The consensus forecast is for initial jobless claims of 372,000. Last week, initial claims were at 364,000. For most economists, the seasonal impact of holiday season hiring requires taking these numbers with a grain of salt. The key level is that claims remain beneath the 400,000 mark. If so, that gives the markets enough breathing room into next Friday's more important nonfarm payroll report to make the case that the labor market is continuing to improve in the U.S.

"Initial claims is very helpful in gauging the health of the labor market and the general improvement we have seen is key," said Sweet. "If the U.S. economy is going to make the transition from improvement to a self-sustaining expansion, the labor markets needs to really kick in with hiring." At this point, what the improving initial jobless claims numbers have shown the markets is that layoffs are no longer hurting the economy, even if hiring remains slow.

"If claims don't reverse the bulk of improvements in recent weeks, then we are heading in the right direction for the labor market in 2012," Sweet said.

Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors said jobless claims just need to "hold the line" and allow the U.S. economy to build a growth narrative for 2012. If unemployment stabilizes, businesses start hiring, and unemployment slows into the spring and summer of next year, the U.S. economy has a "decent chance at picking up steam, not a lot, but some," Naroff said.

If Europe crashes and burns, the U.S. can't avoid the domino effect, but if jobs are being created here, and the consumer confidence numbers gap up, the U.S. economy can withstand a relatively mild European recession through its one-two punch of a better job market leading to better confidence and consumer spending that itself leads to more hiring. "The job numbers seem to be coming around," Naroff said.

Moody's Analytics expects initial claims of 370,000, though both economists said that with the extent of revisions to the job numbers lately, the four week moving average is arguably more important than the week to week swing, and the revisions to the nonfarm payroll report coming next Friday -- which in a recent month went from zero to 103,000 jobs -- are as important barometers of labor health.

The ISM Chicago is a similar tale, as Midwest manufacturing has been the standout in the U.S. manufacturing picture and needs to stay on track, as opposed to show any giant leap forward, to paint a solid picture headed into the new year. The consensus index reading is 60.7 for the December Chicago PMI, while last month the index was at 62.6.

The ISM Chicago has been the standout among regional manufacturing indexes thanks to the auto industry, and even if there is any hiccup related to the Thailand flooding and auto sales and production, it should be temporary and won't raise a red flag, Sweet said.

In the same way that the initial jobless claims number is a preview of the more important nonfarm payroll report next Friday, the ISM-Chicago is a precursor to the national ISM Manufacturing Index released next Tuesday.

"It's been the standout during the recovery, and manufacturing led us out of this recession," Sweet said.

The ISM Chicago is still at a "lofty level" above 60, and it's the last piece of national ISM puzzle before next week's national ISM report.

"This is just keeping things on track until those numbers come out next week," Naroff added.

-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.

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