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Stocks end slightly lower ahead of payrolls report

U.S. stocks fell on Thursday, with benchmarks not far from record highs, as investors considered reports that the European Central Bank would consider a broad-based package of quantitative easing in January and awaited the monthly jobs report.

"We think the jobs report tomorrow will come in near consensus at about 225,000, which would be the 10th straight month of jobs over 200,000, so the jobs market is improving," said Sean Lynch, managing director of global equity research and strategy for Wells Fargo Private Bank.

Comments from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi had thrown cold water on hopes the ECB would begin a program of sovereign-debt purchases called quantitative easing. The central bank held interest rates at a record low.

"The sense of urgency that Draghi had appeared to express in recent speeches did not seem to be reflected in the press conference," Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman, wrote in emailed research.

"Many participants had expected something more, including a commitment on sovereign bonds," Chandler added.

Stocks reversed briefly higher, however, after Bloomberg News cited two euro-zone central bank officials familiar with the deliberations in reporting the ECB would consider additional stimulus measure in early 2015.

"While the Bloomberg headline made this out to be breaking news, it is nothing new as we know the ECB is looking at all things to increase the size of their balance sheet and (ECB President Mario) Draghi said as much today. The question is if, timing, extent and how much support on the council does Draghi get because it won't come from the Germans," emailed Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at the Lindsey Group.

CNBC confirmed with a source the story first reported by Bloomberg News.

"Today the market is being driven by energy stocks being hit with lower oil prices and then the comments from the ECB. People were expecting a little more detail in terms of when he (Draghi) would initiate some outright bond buying and activity," said Lynch.

"Eventually QE will have to happen; I'm not too concerned with the comments today," Lynch added.

"When you have a sector off 14 to 15 percent over the past quarter, it's hard to hit new highs," said Lynch of the impact of oil's fall on the broader market.

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After a 97-point fall, the Dow Jones Industrial Average took a brief tour in positive terrain, hitting an intraday record of 17,937.96, before finishing down 12.52 points, or 0.1 percent, at 17,900.10. Chevron led blue-chip losses that extended to 17 of 30 components.

The S&P 500 also rose to an intraday peak before ending with a loss of 2.41 points, or 0.1 percent, at 2,071.92, with energy hardest hit of its 10 major industry groups in decline.

The Nasdaq dropped 5.04 points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,769.44.

For every share three shares rising, roughly five fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where almost 799 million shares traded. Composite volume approached 3,.4 billion.

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Getty Images
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Crude-oil futures for January delivery fell 57 cents at $66.81 a barrel; the February gold futures contract dropped $1.00 to $1,207.70 an ounce.

The U.S. dollar edged lower against the currencies of major U.S. trading partners; the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell 4 basis points to 2.2376 percent.

Thursday's U.S. reports had the Labor Department reporting fewer Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, with jobless claims falling by 17,000 to 297,000.

On Friday, the government releases the November payrolls report.

On Wednesday, U.S. stocks rallied into the close, with the Dow and S&P 500 ending the day at records amid encouraging economic reports.

Coming Up This Week:

Friday

Earnings: Big Lots, Vail Resorts

8:30 a.m.: Employment report

8:30 a.m.: International Trade

8:45 a.m.: Cleveland Fed's Mester

1000 a.m.: Factory orders

3:00 p.m.: Consumer credit

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