NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Stock futures pointed to a stronger open Thursday as initial jobless claims unexpectedly shed 20,000 and oil prices retreated. Futures for the Dow Jones Industrial Average were up by 83 points at 12,129. Futures for the S&P 500 were higher by 11 points, or 9 points above fair value, at 1317, and Nasdaq futures were ahead by 19 points, or 15 points above fair value. Stocks managed to close Wednesday's session with slight gains after a strong ADP jobs report and mildly positive outlook from the Federal Reserve helped offset geopolitical jitters. Initial jobless claims shed 20,000 to 368,000 in the week ended Feb. 26, from 388,000, previously. The level was better than the increase to 400,000 from last week's initially reported level of 391,000, that economists had been expecting, according to Briefing.com. On Wednesday, Automatic Data Processing said the private sector saw better-than-expected job growth of 217,000 in February. On Friday, the government will release its February unemployment report. According to Briefing.com, economists are anticipating job growth of 200,000, although the unemployment rate is projected to rise to 9.1%, from 9% in January.
Oil prices retreated Thursday, a day after oil closed above $102 a barrel for the first time in more than two years, amid
reports that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi accepted Venezuela's offer to mediate Libya's crisis. Oil prices were still hovering above $101 a barrel, with the April crude contract trading $1.19 lower at $101.04. Libyan warplanes struck the oil terminal town Brega and have been pushed back to Ras Lanuf, another important terminal. The European Central Bank kept rates unchanged at 1.00% , as expected. Hong Kong's Hang Seng gained 0.3% and Japan's Nikkei rose 0.9%. London's FTSE was trading 1.2% higher and the DAX in Frankfurt was ahead by 1.4%.
The Labor Department reported fourth-quarter productivity of 2.6%. Economists had projected a downward revision to 2.3%. Unit labor costs, meanwhile, fell 0.6% in the fourth quarter. The market had anticipated an upward revision to a milder dip of 0.4%, according to Briefing.com. At 10 a.m., the Institute for Supply Management will report on activity in the services sector in February. According to Briefing.com, economists expect the nonmanufacturing ISM index to fall to 59, from a reading of 59.4 in January. Elsewhere in commodity markets, the April gold contract was lower by $7.80 to trade at $1,429.90 an ounce. Shares of Big Lots ( BIG) were up 5.8% at $42.20 ahead of Thursday's opening bell after the
closeout retailer said fourth-quarter earnings rose more than 4% and sales gained nearly 4%. Family Dollar ( FDO) saw shares decline 2.4% to $49.20 after the discount chain's board rejected Trian Group's offer to buy it for $55 to $60 a share, or more than $7 billion, saying the bid was too low. Shares of H.J. Heinz ( HNZ) were gaining 0.08% to $49.02 in early trading after it reported third-quarter earnings of 84 cents a share on sales of $2.72 billion, and said it bought an 80% stake in Coniexpress S.A. Industrias Alimenticias, a Brazilian sauce company. Wall Street had been expecting a profit of 82 cents a share on sales of $2.71 billion. A co-founder of Twitter told Reuters that the site has no plans to go public anytime soon despite recent reports that Google ( GOOG) and Facebook have held talks about acquiring the microblogging site. The benchmark 10-year Treasury fell 2/32, lifting the yield to 3.481%. The dollar strengthened against a basket of currencies with the dollar index up by 0.2%. . --Written by Melinda Peer in New York.