U.S. stock futures fell Thursday as a sell-off that began the previous day with the release of Federal Reserve minutes gained momentum on troublesome economic data from Europe.
Dow Jones industrial futures fell 13 points to 13,876. The broader S&P futures gave up 2.1 points to 1,505. Nasdaq futures fell 7.75 points to 2,729.75.
Business in the European Union economic block slowed in February, providing a strong indication that a downturn that began last year will continue into 2013.
If the data from the monthly purchasing managers' index — a gauge of business activity — proves reliable, there will be more pressure on European governments that are reeling from falling tax revenue and serious unemployment.
New data released Thursday in the U.S. suggests the employment picture is still in a slow recovery mode.
The Labor Department said that the number of people applying for unemployment benefits jumped by 20,000 last week. Trends still suggest that modest hiring is ongoing, but the four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 8,000 to 360,750, the highest in six weeks.
The Labor Department also said that the consumer price index has risen 1.6 percent in the 12 months ending in January, down from a 2.9 percent pace a year ago. That will give the U.S. Federal Reserve some room to maneuver without undue concern over inflation.
Minutes released Wednesday from a Federal Reserve meeting late last month showed new divisions over its low-interest rate policies that are intended to revive the economy. There is no sign of inflation, yet there was more evidence that some Federal Reserve officials are ready to ease stimulus programs before the economy has fully recovered.
The fragile state of the recovery has left retailers cautions, particularly those whose core customer base consists of those people that are seeing new payroll taxes cut into their take-home pay.
Wal-Mart topped profit expectations for the fourth quarter Thursday, but it warned of a slow start to the year.
The company said that after a strong start to the holiday season, the first three weeks of December were weak, and business has been volatile since then.
The company attributed some of what it is seeing to a delay in tax refund checks that have left people strapped for cash.