US STOCKS-Index futures edge higher as housing data eyed

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 20, 2012 13:39 hrs

* 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 business.

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" presidential helicopter.

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