Stock futures climb ahead of ECB, claims data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock index futures advanced on Thursday, indicating the S&P 500 may rise for a third straight session ahead of a European Central Bank rate decision and data on the U.S. labor market.

The central bank is expected to keep rates unchanged, and the market will give more attention to comments from ECB President Mario Draghi, who will give his views on the region's growth prospects and faces tough questions over the euro's sharp rise and his connection to an Italian banking scandal.

"The ECB will come out and talk about how they are going to have buying programs and all that stuff but this is a danger point for U.S. investors because sometimes traders do pay attention to the woes of Europe," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst, Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

Economic data due at 8:30 a.m. (1330 GMT) includes weekly jobless claims and preliminary fourth quarter productivity and unit labor costs. Initial claims are expected at 360,000 compared with 368,000 in the prior week. Estimates call for a 1.3 percent fall in productivity while unit labor costs are expected to rise 3.0 percent.

"The unemployment information, it has been interesting how much it's dropped off, but we could have a slowdown in firing, but that doesn't necessarily mean an uptick in hiring."

Recent data has pointed to a modest improvement in the economy, but one without enough strength to cause the Federal Reserve to back off it's easy monetary policy, helping the benchmark S&P index <.spx> climb 6 percent for the year.

S&P 500 futures rose 2.7 points and were above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures gained 25 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 3.25 points.

Visa Inc's quarterly profit beat analysts' estimates for the ninth consecutive quarter as credit, debit and transactions grew at the world's largest payments network.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc stumbled 7.2 percent to $45.43 in premarket after forecasting sales growth for the current quarter that was slightly lower than analysts expected.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Wednesday morning, of 301 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported earnings, 68.1 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, above a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters. In terms of revenue, 65.8 percent of companies have topped forecasts.

Looking ahead, fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are now expected to grow 4.7 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

Retailers will also be eyed as they report monthly sales results. Costco Wholesale Corp posted a 4 percent rise in comparable sales in January, marginally above analysts' estimates, despite the largest U.S. warehouse operator having one less sales day in the reporting period.

European shares were little changed after sharp falls the previous day, with any recovery capped by mixed earnings and concerns about economic and political developments in the euro zone. <.eu/>

Asian shares and the euro paused from recent gains as investors awaited the European Central Bank's policy meeting later in the day and Draghi's view on euro zone growth prospects.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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