* Brent crude climbs over $63 a barrel
* Initial claims point to strengthening labor market
* Oracle up in premarket after results
* Futures up: Dow 221 pts, S&P 25.75 pts, Nasdaq 57.25 pts (Adds comments, data)
By Chuck Mikolajczak
NEW YORK, Dec 18 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were set for a stronger open on Thursday, building on gains in the prior session after the U.S. Federal Reserve’s policy statement and as oil prices showed signs of steadying.
The benchmark S&P 500 index notched its best day since October 2013 on Wednesday after the Federal Reserve gave an upbeat assessment of the U.S. economy and said it would take a patient approach toward raising interest rates, while the energy sector jumped more than 4 percent.
“The bottom line is a June (rate hike) is still in play and even doves need to tighten at some point when the numbers start looking good,” said James Liu, global market strategist at JPMorgan Funds in Chicago.
“The economy is improving, things are picking up, they need to get the ball rolling on this.”
Oil prices continued to climb Thursday, extending a rebound off five-year lows, with Brent crude rising as high as $63.70 and WTI crude up nearly 2 percent. Exxon Mobil rose 2 percent to $90.80 and the Select Sector Energy ETF gained 2.5 percent to $79.04 in premarket trading.
“On the oil front, the fact you have seen energy pop by about five percent the last two days, there is the notion out there that oil has certainly stabilized,” said Liu.
S&P 500 e-mini futures were up 25.75 points and fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract, indicated a higher open. Dow Jones industrial average e-mini futures rose 221 points and Nasdaq 100 e-mini futures added 57.25 points.
Weekly jobless claims fell by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 289,000, against expectations for 295,000, suggesting the labor market continued to strengthen.
Data expected later in the session includes the preliminary services sector Purchasing Managers Index from Markit at 9:45 a.m. (1445 GMT). At 10:00 a.m. (1500 GMT), the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank’s manufacturing survey and the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index are due.
Oracle Corp advanced 6 percent to $43.62 before the opening bell after reporting quarterly results that topped Wall Street expectations.
Canadian convenience store operator Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc said it will buy U.S. convenience store chain The Pantry Inc for $1.7 billion, including debt. Pantry shares gained 2.3 percent to $36.32 in premarket.
Rita Aid shares surged 13 percent to $6.85 in premarket after the drugstore chain’s quarterly results topped expectations and it boosted its 2015 outlook.
Editing by Bernadette Baum