* S&P 500 coming off first weekly decline in eight
* Investors watching Italian elections, Fed policy
* Barnes & Noble rallies on report part of it may go private
* Futures up: Dow 53 pts, S&P 8.2 pts, Nasdaq 22.5 pts
By Ryan Vlastelica
NEW YORK, Feb 25 (Reuters) - U.S. stock index futures rose on Monday, suggesting the equity rally was intact despite concerns that the Federal Reserve could curtail its stimulus for the economy sooner than many expected.
Stocks have been strong performers so far this year, with the S&P 500 jumping 6.2 percent in 2013 to hover around its highest levels since 2007. That has prompted many to predict a pullback, but declines have been neutralized as investors use any dip as a buying opportunity.
In company news, Barnes & Noble Inc Chairman Leonard Riggio is considering a bid for the company’s bookstore business, the Wall Street Journal reported. The stock jumped 18 percent to $16 in premarket trading.
While the S&P fell last week, the decline was a slight 0.3 percent and was the first weekly drop after a seven-week streak of gains, suggesting many may still be looking for a consolidation.
“People are cautious about investing near five-year highs, especially given the pace at which we got here, but there’s still room to grow and any pullback should be shallow,” said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Banyan Partners LLC in New York.
S&P 500 futures rose 8.2 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 added 53 points and Nasdaq 100 futures rose 22.5 points.
The gains have come on strong corporate earnings. With 83 percent of the S&P 500 having reported results, 69 percent of beat profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.
In addition, the market has risen against a backdrop of stimulus from the Federal Reserve. Last week stocks faltered when some Fed officials seemed to suggest the stimulus may be curtailed earlier than many expected, though subsequent comments seemed to allay those concerns.
Another test for equities will come with the looming debate over massive U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect on Friday if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement over spending and taxes. The White House issued warnings about the harm the cuts are likely to inflict on the economy if enacted.
“Right now we’re looking past the sequester, but as we go forward we may see more anxiety if it doesn’t look like our leaders can get anything together,” Pavlik said.
More government-related uncertainty came from Italy, where a close election left questions about how the country would handle its three-year debt crisis. Last year, inconclusive Greek elections sparked a protracted selloff and a period of uncertainty in U.S. equity markets as well.
Still, European shares were higher on Monday, rising 0.6 percent after a smooth Italian debt auction.
Dow component Johnson & Johnson forecast a negative impact to its first-quarter earnings as a result of a Venezuelan currency devaluation, though the charge wouldn’t impact its full-year guidance.
Lowe’s Cos Inc reported earnings that beat expectations, helped by rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Sandy in the United States. Shares rose 2.1 percent to $38.45 before the bell on light volume.
Other companies scheduled to report quarterly results include Autodesk Inc and FirstEnergy.
Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.
U.S. stocks closed higher on Friday, boosted by strong results from Hewlett-Packard Co, as well as allayed concerns over Fed policy.