Stocks: Growth worries dampen enthusiasm

@CNNMoneyInvest March 22, 2012: 8:40 AM ET

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- U.S. stocks were headed for a weak open Thursday, as investors were rattled by worries of a global growth slowdown after China and Germany reported soft manufacturing data.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU), S&P 500 (SPX) and Nasdaq (COMP) futures were 0.5% lower ahead of the opening bell. Stock futures indicate the possible direction of the markets when they open at 9:30 a.m. ET.

Global markets put a damper on any optimism after a Chinese manufacturing index compiled by HSBC hit a four-month low in March. The new reading came in at 48.1, down from 49.6 in February.

A reading below 50 indicates the sector is contracting, and HSBC said that a significant drop in new orders acted as the primary drag on manufacturing. Reflecting a broader slowdown, China lowered its growth target and hiked gasoline prices in recent weeks.

A reading on manufacturing activity in Germany showed the eurozone stalwart hit a soft patch in March, as the sector registered only a marginal expansion.

Thursday may bring signs of strength in the U.S. economy to help reverse two straight days of losses -- a prospect made more likely by better-than-expected jobs data released before the start of trading.

The FHFA Housing Price Index and the Conference Board's Leading Indicators Index, which is a combination of economic readings, will be released after the opening bell.

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U.S. stocks faltered Wednesday, after the latest report on new home sales damped enthusiasm about the economy.

Overall, stocks have been supported this year by rising hopes for the U.S. economy and easing concerns about the debt crisis in Europe. But given the strength of the recent rally, analysts say a period of uneven trading is to be expected.

World markets: European stocks were lower in morning trading. Britain's FTSE 100 (UKX) shed 0.9%, the DAX (DAX) in Germany lost 1.5% and France's CAC 40 (CAC40) fell 1.6%.

Asian markets ended mixed. The Shanghai Composite (SHCOMP) slid 0.1%, while the Hang Seng (HSI) in Hong Kong ticked up 0.2% and Japan's Nikkei (N225) added 0.4%.

Japan's Ministry of Finance reported the island nation enjoyed a trade surplus in February. A deficit had been expected, and the announcement buoyed stocks.

Economy: The government reported that initial jobless claims for the week ended March 17 dropped to 348,000, a four-year low and a better number than analysts had expected.

The Conference Board's Leading Indicators Index for February is expected to increase by 0.6%.

Companies: Dollar General (DG, Fortune 500) reported earnings of 85 cents per share on $4.2 billion in revenue, topping projections. The company said same store sales increased 6.5% over the quarter.

FedEx (FDX, Fortune 500) reported better-than-expected earnings and sales, citing record holiday shipping. The company, seen as a proxy for the health of the broader economy, said it expects its 'solid performance' to continue.

ConAgra (CAG, Fortune 500) reported earnings of 51 cents per share on $3.4 billion in revenue, or slightly better than analysts had expected. Shares were off by almost 1% in premarket trading.

Athletic apparel maker lululemon athletica (LULU) reported that revenue surged 51.4% to $371.5 million in the fourth quarter, topping analyst estimates. But shares dropped almost 2% in premarket trading as the company lowered guidance.

McDonald's (MCD, Fortune 500) said Wednesday that CEO Jim Skinner plans to retire at the end of June, ending a seven-year turn at the helm of the fast food giant. The company's current president and COO Don Thompson will succeed Skinner.

Currencies and commodities: The dollar strengthened against the euro and the British pound, but fell versus the Japanese yen.

Oil for May delivery slipped $1.19 to $106.08 a barrel.

Gold futures for April delivery fell $15.20 to $1,635.10 an ounce.

Bonds: The price on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury rose, pushing the yield down to 2.27% from 2.29% late Wednesday.  To top of page

Index Last Change % Change
Dow 24,987.47 -103.01 -0.41%
Nasdaq 7,747.02 0.65 0.01%
S&P 500 2,773.75 -5.91 -0.21%
Treasuries 2.93 0.00 0.00%
Data as of 8:18am ET
Company Price Change % Change
Hewlett Packard Ente... 15.91 0.00 0.00%
Williams Companies I... 27.09 0.00 0.00%
Invesco Ltd 26.82 0.00 0.00%
GGP Inc 20.67 0.00 0.00%
Bristol-Myers Squibb... 53.65 0.00 0.00%
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