Stocks closed lower Thursday, after a sharp fall in oil prices, while investors parsed through key U.S. economic data, and digested a key European Central Bank decision on interest rates.
"You've got a back-and-forth with the data. One month you get strong economic data, and then another month it's weak," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank. "There's just no clear path [for the stock market]."
"We're playing the waiting game right now and stocks are kind of dragging along," said John Caruso, senior market strategist at RJO Futures.
The Dow Jones industrial average closed about 40 points lower, with Travelers Companies contributing the most losses. The S&P 500 held 0.14 percent lower as telecommunications fell approximately 2 percent. The Nasdaq composite slipped 0.1 percent. The three major indexes alternated between gains and losses throughout the session.
S&P 500 intraday chartSource: FactSet
U.S. crude futures for November delivery fell 2.27 percent to settle at $50.43 per barrel, a day after hitting a 15-month high, as traders took profits off the table following the previous day's rally on another unseasonal draw in U.S. crude oil stocks.
"We think we're in a trading range of $40-to-$60 per barrel. We don't really see a catalyst for oil to go much higher," said Jon Adams, senior investment strategist at BMO Global Asset Management.
In U.S. economic news, existing home sales rose 3.2 percent last month to a seasonably adjusted rate of 5.47 million, their highest since June. Leading indicators for September, meanwhile rose 0.2 percent.
Meanwhile, weekly jobless claims rose by 13,000 to 260,000, but notched their 85th straight week coming in below 300,000, the longest period since 1970. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Business Index for October came in at 9.7, below September's 12.8.
Investors also turned their eyes toward Europe, as the ECB kept interest rates unchanged, as was widely expected. Facing high unemployment, weak growth and ultra low inflation, the ECB has provided extraordinary stimulus in recent years, cutting interest rates deep into negative territory and pushing the cost of credit to all-time lows, hoping to jump start growth.
"There is a question as to whether the ECB is, not just going to extend [quantitative easing], but also which direction they're going to go on," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial. "What assets are they going to buy? Remember, it's a much more shallow market for QE there than it is here."
ECB President Mario Draghi said that, while extending the central bank's current QE program beyond its March 2017 deadline was not discussed at this meeting, he did say the central bank will preserve very substantial amount of monetary policy support.