* Weekly jobless claims seen steady, near four-year lows
* U.S. vehicle sales for February due, seen up slightly
* European equities rise, led by banking stocks
* Futures up: Dow 38 pts, S&P 2.6 pts, Nasdaq 11 pts
* For up-to-the-minute market news, see (Updates prices, adds analyst comment)
By Ryan Vlastelica
NEW YORK, March 1 (Reuters) - U.S. stock index futures edged higher on Thursday after Wall Street finished February with healthy gains as investors looked ahead to economic data that could reinforce recent signs of improved growth.
The data comes a day after comments from U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that disappointed those hoping for signals of more monetary stimulus.
Bernanke offered a tempered view of the economy, pouring cold water on the notion that recent upbeat signs heralded a stronger recovery. He told U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee that unless growth accelerated, unacceptably high unemployment would not keep dropping.
Bernanke will deliver his semi-annual testimony on monetary policy later Thursday before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee.
Weekly initial jobless claims are seen holding steady near four-year lows at 351,000. The report will be released at 8:30 a.m. EST (1330 GMT).
In addition, the Institute for Supply Management’s February manufacturing index, due at 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT), is seen rising to 54.5 from 54.1 in the previous month.
“People are waiting on the data to decide how they’re going to trade today, and while we could be due for a pullback, so far this year the numbers have been a lot better than expected,” said Oliver Pursche, president at Gary Goldberg Financial Services in Suffern, New York.
S&P 500 futures rose 2.6 points and were about even with 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 added 38 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures gained 11 points.
Equities are coming off a strong February, with the Dow rising 2.5 percent, the S&P advancing 4.1 percent and the Nasdaq adding 5.4 percent. The Dow on Tuesday closed above 13,000 for the first time since May 2008, however, since those gains largely came on light trading volume, many traders have forecast a near-term pullback.
“We’re above some technically important levels, and while we’re still in a strong uptrend we may need to take a breather soon,” Pursche said.
Car companies may be in focus, with February vehicle sales seen rising slightly. Ford Motor Co is expected to have recorded some of the biggest monthly gains. The stock edged up 0.4 percent to $12.43 in premarket trading.
European shares advanced 0.7 percent, with investors turning more upbeat on the impact from the European Central Bank’s pumping 530 billion euros of cash into the banking system. U.S.-listed shares of Barclays Plc rose 3.1 percent to $16.06 in premarket trading.
U.S. stocks slipped on Wednesday, snapping a four-day winning streak after Bernanke’s comments disappointed investors hoping for a strong signal of more stimulus. (Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)