* Latest China data points to slowing economy
* Ukraine tensions continue, Merkel warns Russia
* Initial claims fall, retail sales tops estimate
* Futures up: Dow 32 pts, S&P 4.25 pts, Nasdaq 12.5 pts
By Chuck Mikolajczak
NEW YORK, March 13 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were poised for a higher open on Thursday, putting the S&P 500 on track for a second day of gains, after better-than-expected data on retail sales and the labor market.
Weekly initial jobless claims fell 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 315,000, marking a fresh three-month low and better than a forecast for 330,000 new claims.
Retail sales for February rose 0.3 percent, slightly more than the 0.2 percent estimate and ended two straight months of declines, although the prior month was revised lower.
In addition, import prices increased 0.9 percent last month, the biggest rise since February last year, but there was little sign of a broad pick-up in imported inflation.
Investors have discounted many economic numbers that have fallen short of expectations recently, attributing the weakness to a harsh winter across much of the country. Economic activity, evidenced by such data as retail sales, is expected to improve as the weather warms.
Still, advances were checked by another round of limp data out of China, the world’s second-biggest economy. China’s economy slowed markedly in the first two months of the year, as growth in investment, retail sales and factory output all fell to multi-year lows.
Tensions in Ukraine continued to flare. Germany’s Angela Merkel warned Moscow it risked “massive” political and economic damage if it refused to change course on Ukraine, saying Western leaders were ready to impose sanctions on Russia if necessary. Russia announced it had started military exercises near the border with Ukraine, in what is likely to be seen as a show of force in the standoff with the West over the Crimea peninsula.
S&P 500 e-mini futures rose 4.25 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 gained 32 points and Nasdaq 100 futures added 12.5 points.
Later in the session at 10:00 a.m. ET (1400 GMT), business inventories data for January is due. Expectations call for a 0.4 percent increase versus a 0.5 percent rise in the prior month.
J.C. Penney Co Inc gained 2.7 percent to $9.17 in premarket trade. The department store chain is about to undo the centerpiece of former Chief Executive Officer Ron Johnson’s failed vision to take the retailer upmarket, relaunching its home goods sections.
Dollar General Corp lost 2.6 percent to $57.75 in premarket after the discount retailer posted lower-than-expected sales for the holiday quarter.
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc jumped 8.7 percent to $21.60 in premarket trading after it raised its full-year earnings per share forecast and said it would buy back $30 million shares.
Venaxis Inc surged 16.9 percent to $3.17 before the opening bell after the company said its appendicitis test correctly predicted results in 97 percent of patients in a clinical trial.