Stocks close little changed as Wall Street gets set for the start of the corporate earnings season

Stocks closed along the flatline on Thursday as Wall Street looked ahead to the start of the earnings season.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped 14.11 points to 26,143.05 as Apple slipped 0.8%. The S&P 500 posted a marginal gain to end the day at 2,888.32 while the Nasdaq Composite slipped 0.2% to 7,947.36. Thursday's session saw the lowest trading volume since Dec. 24.

J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo are among the companies set to kick off the latest earnings season on Friday, which Wall Street believes will be rough. FactSet estimates first-quarter earnings for the S&P 500 fell 4.2%, which would mark the worst earnings season since 2016.

"We expect Q1 results to be better-than-expected and growth to be positive in the quarter," said Lindsey Bell, investment strategist at CFRA Research, in a note. But "with the S&P 500 trading at a price-to-earnings (P/E) multiple of 17.5x, a premium to the historic average of 16.4x, investors will need earnings (driven by sales) to improve to keep the market moving higher near-term."

Stocks initially rose Thursday as investors cheered progress on U.S.-China trade talks. The Wall Street Journal reported that China agreed to open its cloud-computing sector to foreign companies in an attempt to sweeten a deal with the U.S.

This follows Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin telling CNBC on Wednesday that Washington and Beijing have "pretty much agreed on an enforcement mechanism" for when a deal is struck.

"We are hopeful we can do this quickly, but we are not going to set an arbitrary deadline," Mnuchin added. "If we can complete this agreement, this will be the most significant changes to the economic relationship between the U.S. and China in really the last 40 years."

Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange.

Investors also weighed news that talks between EU leaders and British Prime Minister Theresa May culminated in a "flexible extension" of the U.K.'s departure from the bloc until Oct. 31.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said this development provides extra time for the "U.K. to find the best possible solution."

Thursday's moves follow the release of the minutes from the Federal Reserve's latest meeting. The minutes showed the Fed does not expect to raise rates later in 2019. However, the central bank left the door open for tighter monetary policy if economic growth improves.

"This met current market expectations," said Tom Essaye, founder of The Sevens Report. "But Fed officials also didn't see any need to cut rates at this point either, and there wasn't even much of a discussion of a future rate cut, which obviously highlights a discrepancy between Fed rate forecasts and market expectations."

The CME Group's FedWatch tool shows market participants expect Fed rates to be lower by January 2020.

Chipotle Mexican Grill shares fell more than 1% after Jefferies downgraded them, citing a "full" valuation and a run-up that "reflects improved visibility for powerful [same-store sales] and margin drivers."

Tesla, meanwhile, fell nearly 3% after a report said the company and Panasonic were holding off on a Gigafactory expansion. The delay, according to the Nikkei report, is due to worries that demand for Tesla vehicles is slowing down.

—CNBC's Spriha Srivastava contributed to this report.