Stocks headed for early gains

By staff

NEW YORK( -- U.S. stocks were headed for a positive open Thursday as investors reacted to a surge in Exxon earnings and easing concerns about the debt problems in Europe.

Dow Jones industrial average, S&P 500 futures and Nasdaq 100 futures were higher ahead of the opening bell.

Futures measure current index values against perceived future performance and offer an indication of how markets may open when trading begins.

The blue-chip Dow rose back above 11,000 Wednesday after the Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged and said that the economy is getting better. The central bank's pledge to keep interest rates low helped investors turn their focus away from debt problems in Europe.

Concerns about the fiscal crisis in Greece have abated as European officials appeared to be nearing agreement on a rescue package for the debt-stricken nation, but the situation remained uncertain, said David Jones, chief market strategist at IG Markets in London.

"And we still have a raft of earnings to come from U.S. companies," he said. "Investors' expectations are still very high to continue strong earnings."

Earnings: Several big corporate players reported their quarterly results before the opening bell Thursday.

Exxon Mobil (XOM, Fortune 500) reported a surge in earnings but still missed Wall Street expectations. The oil giant said earnings were $1.33 per share in the first quarter, which fell short of the $1.41 per share forecast by a consensus of analyst opinions from Thomson Reuters.

The stock edged up in pre-market trading.

Aetna (AET, Fortune 500) managed to beat expectations when it reported operating earnings of 98 cents per share for the first quarter, compared to 96 cents a year ago. Excluding certain charges, EPS was 77 cents, the insurer said. A consensus of analyst opinion from Thomson Reuters had forecast EPS of 68 cents.

P&G (PG, Fortune 500) reported a profit for its third quarter that managed to edge above expectations. The company reported earnings of 83 cents per share, which was slightly lower than its year-ago EPS of 84 cents. A consensus of analyst opinion from Thomson Reuters had forecast EPS of 82 cents.

Viacom (VIA) reported a surge in profits for the quarter, with diluted earnings of 40 cents per share. This was a 38% jump from 29 cents per share in the year-ago quarter.

Companies: Stocks to watch include Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500), which said Wednesday it will buy smartphone maker Palm (PALM) for $1.2 billion.

Economy: The government released its weekly report on initial claims for unemployment benefits before the opening bell.

Initial jobless claims dropped 11,000 to 448,000 in the week ended April 24, reported the U.S. Labor Department.

Initial jobless claims for the week were expected to slip to 445,000, according to a consensus of economist opinion from But this was based on the prior week's tally of 456,000 claims. That tally was revised upward to 459,000.

World markets: European shares rose in morning trading. Britain's FTSE 100, the CAC 40 in France and Germany's DAX were higher.

But Asian markets had another rough day. The Shanghai Composite tumbled 1.1% and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong fell 0.8%.

The dollar and commodities: The dollar declined 0.4% against the euro but edged up 0.1% against the British pound. The greenback was little changed against the yen.

U.S. light crude oil for June delivery rose $1.12 to $84.36 a barrel.

COMEX gold for June delivery fell $4.60 to $1,167.30 an ounce.

Bonds: Treasury prices were mostly lower, with the yield on the benchmark 10-year note rising to 3.77% from 3.69% Wednesday. Prices eased Tuesday after a government auction drew lukewarm demand and following the Fed's interest rate decision. Treasury prices and yields move in opposite directions To top of page

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