Stocks Lower as Dollar Rises; Builders Gain

Stocks opened lower on Wall Street as a rising dollar pressures commodity prices and outweighed another round of positive news in the job market.

Retailers also jumped on positive holiday sales numbers but computer and transportation stocks were broadly weaker.

The big economic news of the day came as the Labor Department reported 434,000 new jobless claims last week, a gain of 1,000 but less than expected. The four-month moving average, which smoothes out volatility from the weekly numbers, hit a 16-month low.

Stocks stubbornly remained lower, however, as the dollar hit a four-month high against the yen.

Among December sales numbers from major chain stores, Costco reported a 9 percent increase in same-store sales for the month. That's above analyst estimates of 7.9 percent but still a bit of a disappointment as shares edged lower.

Elsewhere in retailing Sears Holding shares soared, but investors gave mixed reviews to otherwise positive reports from Limited Brands, Macy's and Aeropostale.

Bed Bath & Beyond led gainers on the Nasdaq, as the retailer's latest quarterly earnings handily beat estimates and it gives a bullish full year outlook.

Outside retail, Bank of America rose as Credit Suisse upgraded the company to outperform from neutral, saying BofA is the "cheapest" of the large-cap banks it covers.

Alcoa shares fell after Citigroup cut the Dow component to hold from buy. The downgrade comes just four days before the aluminum giant kicks off fourth-quarter earnings reports and was based on valuation and currency headwinds.

BofA led gainers on the Dow while Alcoa was the bluechip index's biggest loser.

Homebuilder Lennar reported its first quarterly profit in three years, sending shares up more han 10 percent. The Dow Jones Home Construction Index gained nearly 5 percent in early trading.

In other stocks news, Vivus shares jumped after the company reported positive test results for its sleep apnea drug.

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is already generating some headlines: Microsoft has unveiled a Windows-based tablet computer made by Hewlett-Packard and Sony said holiday season sales beat its forecasts.

Winterizing Your Portfolio - A CNBC Special Report
Winterizing Your Portfolio - A CNBC Special Report

Texas Instruments is planning to enter the burgeoning e-reader market, according to the Wall Street Journal. It will make new processors and software for manufacturers of those increasingly popular devices.

The fight over Cadbury continued as well, with the company's stock for the first time dipping below the offer from Kraft Foods as the likelihood of a rival bidder diminishes.

Despite the lower opening fear continued to take a holiday, with the Chicago Board Options Exchange's Volatility Index at a 14-month low.

The Bank of England kept its key rate steady at 0.5 percent.