* Microsoft ups dividend
* Japanese central bank eases policy
* Bullish investors rise to 54.2 pct--Investors Intelligence
* Futures up: S&P 1.6 pts, Dow 23 pts, Nasdaq 4.5 pts
NEW YORK, Sept 19 (Reuters) - U.S. stock index futures edged
higher on Wednesday as investors look ahead to a fresh batch of
housing market data that is expected to confirm a recent uptick
in the sector and may help cement the recent central
bank-inspired equity rally.
The U.S. Commerce Department releases housing starts and
permits data for August at 8:30 a.m. (1230 GMT) followed by
existing home sales at 10 a.m. The reports come as investors
look for improving economic data to help bolster a 7 percent
rally since early August that was largely driven by monetary
action from the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank.
"Across the board the housing sector appears to be finding a
bottom here and in the long run that is going to be one of the
most important things that we discovered this summer," said Art
Hogan, managing director of Lazard Capital Markets in New York.
The recent surge in stock prices has led to an increase in
bullish sentiment among U.S. investors. The proportion of equity
bulls climbed to 54.2 percent from 51.1 percent a week ago and
posted its third straight reading above 50, according to a
weekly survey by Investors Intelligence. Some investors see high
levels of enthusiasm as a warning that prices may be topping.
S&P 500 futures rose 1.6 points and were above 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 rose 23
points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 4.5 points.
"When you look at the weeks that preceded this, we really
had massive moves on a back-to-back basis and it's not unusual
to see this type of consolidation where we trade sideways for a
few days, at least until we get a new catalyst," said Hogan,
managing director of Lazard Capital Markets in New York.
On the U.S. data front, economists in a Reuters survey
forecast housing starts at an annualized rate of 765,000 units
versus 746,000 in July. A total of 796,000 permits are expected
in August compared with 811,000 in the prior month.
Existing home sales were expected to come in at 4.55 million
units on an annualized basis, versus 4.47 million in July.
Microsoft Corp raised its dividend by 15 percent on
Tuesday, marking a slowdown in the growth in payouts to
investors after a year marked by a downturn in computer sales
and a large write-off for a failed acquisition. The shares fell
0.2 percent premarket.
Japan's Nikkei share average hit a four-month
closing high on Wednesday after Tokyo's central bank eased
monetary policy to bolster an economy struggling with sluggish
global demand and fallout from a territorial dispute with China.
The Bank of Japan's move, which follows recent monetary
stimulus plans by the U.S. Federal Reserve and the European
Central Bank, also boosted some commodity futures.
European shares rose although gains were capped by
uncertainty over whether Spain would apply for a sovereign
bailout, which the country has to do before the ECB can
intervene in bond markets to tame government borrowing costs.
Shareholders of News Corp will make their case in
a U.S. court on Wednesday for holding its board responsible for
phone hacking scandals that cost the company a major newspaper
and a deal for full control of the BSkyB satellite
Northrop Grumman and AgustaWestland, a unit of
Italy's Finmeccanica SpA, said on Tuesday they were
joining forces to compete for the new U.S. Air Force Combat
Rescue helicopter and the U.S. Navy's new "Marine One"