Stock futures begin March lower as sequester looms

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock index futures were lower on Friday, indicating a weak start to the month of March, as investors looked ahead to U.S. government budget cuts that were widely expected to take effect at the end of the day.

Equities have been on a tear lately, rising for four straight months to approach five-year highs while the Dow climbed to within striking distance of an all-time high. Any declines have been shallow or short-lived, with investors jumping in to buy on any dip.

The gains have come on the back of strong corporate earnings and an accommodative Federal Reserve. In that environment, many investors have shrugged off the potential impact of the sequester, $85 billion in spending cuts across federal government agencies that economists expect will shave half a percentage point off U.S. economic growth.

"Conditions are ripe for anxiety and fear to return to the market, especially given how high we've risen, and the sequester that could be a catalyst that reignites fear in the market," said James Dailey, portfolio manager of TEAM Asset Strategy Fund in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Dailey said that if the market drops below lows hit earlier this week, "that could be the start of a pullback that takes us down as much as 10 percent."

The spending cuts will take effect just before midnight Friday unless there is a last-minute deal, which is considered unlikely.

The International Monetary Fund said that if the cuts take effect, it would have to reevaluate its growth forecasts for the U.S. and the global economy.

Cyclical companies like banks and materials stocks, which are closely tied to the pace of economic growth, are likely to be among the hardest hit in the short term. Bank of America fell 1.2 percent to $11.10 in premarket trading while Chevron Corp slid 0.6 percent to $116.43.

S&P 500 futures fell 7.6 points and were below 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 slid 58 points and Nasdaq 100 futures lost 12.75 points.

For the week, the Dow is up 0.4 percent while both the S&P and Nasdaq are down less than 0.1 percent. Both the Dow and S&P climbed more than 1 percent in February, slimmer gains than in January as equities grappled with uncertainties in Europe and Federal Reserve policy.

Economic data on tap for Friday includes the final Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan sentiment index, which is seen holding steady at 76.3. Personal income and spending data will also be released, along with January construction spending, which is seen rising 0.4 percent. The Institute for Supply Management's February manufacturing index is expected to dip to 52.5 from 53.1 in the previous month.

Overseas, China's factory growth cooled to multi-month lows in February as domestic demand dipped, and euro zone manufacturing activity appeared no closer to recovery last month, as a dire performance in France offset a return to growth in Germany.

"The weakness in overseas data is increasingly drawing people's attention, and as that gets worse the market will continue to struggle," Dailey said.

Groupon Inc gained 4.2 percent to $4.72 in premarket trading a day after the online coupon company fired its chief executive officer in the wake of weak quarterly results.

Gap Inc reported fourth-quarter earnings that beat expectations and boosted its dividend by 20 percent, while Inc posted sales that beat consensus forecasts, sending shares up 4.6 percent to $177 before the bell.

U.S. stocks ended flat on Thursday, giving up modest gains late in the session. The Dow Jones Transportation Average <.djt>, seen as a bet on future growth, hit a record intraday high earlier in the session.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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