US STOCKS-Sales, jobless claims set to lift Wall St

* Costco, Macy’s sales strong, shares rise

* Jobless claims fall slightly more than expected

* Futures up: Dow 20 pts, S&P 2.9 pts, Nasdaq 4.5 pts

* For up-to-the-minute market news see [STXNEWS/US]
(Updates prices, adds jobless claims data)

By Rodrigo Campos

NEW YORK, April 7 (Reuters) – Wall Street stocks were set
to open slightly higher on Thursday as positive labor market
and same-store sales data brightened the outlook for consumer
spending, a pillar of the U.S. economy.

The S&P 500 closed Wednesday above a key technical level
and its ability to hold above 1,333.58 will be tested. The
level is double the cycle low hit in March 2009 and is near a
recent 2-1/2 year high of about 1,344, which could become yet
another technical hurdle.

New applications for unemployment benefits fell slightly
more than expected in the latest week, according to a
government report that pointed to firming labor market
conditions.

“We’re seeing a positive trend, though there’s a question
of sustainability,” said Michael Farr, president of Farr,
Miller & Washington in Washington, D.C. “For now this is kind
of a gift horse and we shouldn’t look it in the mouth.”

Consumer shares will stay in focus as initial sales reports
show March was not as bad as expected for U.S. retailers,
suggesting that shoppers largely ignored higher gasoline prices
and other concerns. For details see [ID:nN07294366].

Among the companies with sales numbers out, Costco
Wholesale Corp (COST.O: Quote, Profile, Research) beat expectations and its shares gained
2.2 percent in premarket trade. Macy’s Inc (M.N: Quote, Profile, Research) rose 2.3
percent before the bell, while Gap Inc (GPS.N: Quote, Profile, Research) fell 2.9
percent.

Consumer spending is closely watched as it accounts for
roughly two-thirds of economic activity in the United States.

“Sales for the majority of retailers look better,” said
Michael James, senior trader at Wedbush Morgan in Los Angeles.
“I would expect the positive direction in retail to continue.”

S&P 500 futures (SPc1: Quote, Profile, Research) rose 2.9 points and were slightly
above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking
into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration
of the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures (DJc1: Quote, Profile, Research)
gained 20 points and Nasdaq 100 futures (NDc1: Quote, Profile, Research) added 4.5
points.

Average weekly volume has so far been the lowest of the
year, raising questions about stocks’ recent rebound.

“Light volume is a little concerning. I’d like to see a
little more conviction in buyers,” said Kim Caughey Forrest,
senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in
Pittsburgh. “But if anything, it also shows a lack of people’s
willingness to sell.”

The European Central Bank announced it was raising its main
refinancing rate by 25 basis points to 1.25 percent, as
expected. [ID:nFLA7FE7M8]

Banks led European shares to their highest in a month as
strategists said a bailout for Portugal would give stability to
the market and interest rate rises would not derail equities’
advance. [.EU]
(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; additional reporting by Ryan
Vlastelica; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

US STOCKS-Sales, jobless claims set to lift Wall St