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Markets solid ahead of weekly US jobless claims

LONDON (AP) — The mood in financial markets remained fairly buoyant Thursday ahead of weekly jobless claims figures in the U.S. and after the main Wall Street stock indexes closed at record highs.

Investors in the U.S. on Wednesday cheered a surprise jump in earnings from a communications company and dismissed the minutes to the March policy meeting of the Federal Reserve, which showed there was a debate over when to end the stimulus program. Traders viewed the debate as outdated because jobs figures released since that Fed meeting have been weak.

The focus later will likely center on weekly U.S. jobless claims figures as traders try to assess whether last week's disappointing employment numbers were a harbinger of more difficult times ahead. The consensus view in the markets is that claims amounted to around 365,000 last week.

"It would be a real boost if we see a figure below 350,000," said Craig Erlam, market analyst at Alpari. "On the other hand, if we see another miss this week, it could be seen as confirmation that the U.S. is facing a slowdown in the second quarter, which will weigh heavily on the markets."

In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was up 0.3 percent at 6,406 while Germany's DAX rose 0.5 percent to 7,851. The CAC-40 in France was 0.6 percent higher at 3,765.

Wall Street was poised for a steady opening, with the Dow futures and the broader S&P 500 futures up 0.1 percent. How they open could hinge on the claims figures, which are released an hour before the bell. On Wednesday, the two indexes struck record closing highs after network communications company Adtran reported earnings that were double what was expected.

Over the coming days, the focus will increasingly turn toward U.S. companies as they report first-quarter earnings. So far, the results have been mixed. On Friday, bank earnings will be in the spotlight with updates from JP Morgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo Bank.

Investors are also hoping that progress will be made in Washington toward a 2014 federal budget. President Barack Obama proposed a $3.8 trillion plan on Wednesday. Without a budget agreement, a huge array of government spending cuts — known as sequestration — will remain in place. Some economists believe the cuts are hurting growth and employment.

The improved mood in stock markets has helped shore up other supposedly riskier assets, such as the euro, which was trading 0.5 percent higher at $1.3124. The dollar shed some of its recent gains against the Japanese yen, trading 0.2 percent lower at 99.61 yen.

Japanese financial assets have been in the spotlight over the past week or so.

The Nikkei 225 in Tokyo jumped nearly 2 percent to close at 13,549.16, riding a wave of enthusiasm for the Bank of Japan's aggressive new approach to stimulating the world's third-largest economy out of a prolonged slump. That new approach has piled pressure on the yen. Just before the Bank of Japan's announcement, the dollar was trading at a little over 92 yen.

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea's Kospi added 0.7 percent to 1,949.80, even though the Bank of Korea disappointed some analysts by keeping its key interest rate at 2.75 percent. Some were expecting the central bank would lower the rate to spark borrowing and help the economy.

In the commodity markets, oil prices were subdued, with the benchmark New York rate down 3 cents at $94.61 a barrel. More interest was on the price of gold, which slid 1.7 percent on Wednesday on speculation that Cyprus will sell 400 million euros of the precious metal as part of its financial bailout. On Thursday, an ounce of gold was trading a dollar lower at $1,557.60.

However, Julian Jessop, head of commodities research at Capital Economics, said there's plenty of room for the price of gold to rise, even if the Federal Reserve starts slowing down its stimulus program. That program has been adding to the amount of money in the financial system over the past few years, pushing some investors to buy gold as a reliable store of value.

Even gold sales from other eurozone are unlikely to significantly weigh on market prices, he said.

"If the crisis elsewhere in the eurozone escalates to the point where other, larger countries were desperate enough to consider selling their own gold, demand for safe havens would surely be so strong that there would be plenty of willing buyers — even at higher prices," said Jessop.

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