Wall St ends flat on caution ahead of US jobs data

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - United States (US) stocks ended little changed on Thursday in a choppy session ahead of Friday's payrolls report, which may provide insights into whether the Federal Reserve will announce another cut in quantitative easing at its meeting this month.

Retail and telecom stocks ranked among the day's biggest losers. The S&P retail sector index slipped 0.2 per cent after a number of retailers, including Bed Bath & Beyond and Family Dollar, slashed their earnings forecasts. The S&P telecom services sector index fell 1.9 per cent, pulled lower by AT&T and Verizon Communications, which were the top decliners in the Dow Jones industrial average.

Nonfarm payrolls are expected to have added 196,000 jobs last month, according to a Reuters survey of economists, slightly below November's count of 203,000. Hiring would, however, be above the monthly average of 188,545 jobs over the first 11 months of 2013.

"There is a bit of hesitancy going into the jobs report and the start of earnings season. The interest is still there for equities, but with caution," said Mr Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist of Banyan Partners LLC in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He added that fourth-quarter earnings will show whether corporate results can keep up with last year's rally in equities.

The US central bank said last month it would begin trimming its stimulative monthly bond purchases. Minutes from the Fed's most recent meeting showed its top officials were keen to steer a delicate path and many of them stressed that future decisions were not set in stone.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 17.98 points or 0.11 per cent, to end at 16,444.76. The S&P 500 inched up just 0.64 of a point, or 0.03 per cent, to finish at 1,838.13.

The Nasdaq Composite dropped 9.417 points or 0.23 per cent, to close at 4,156.194.

Alcoa Inc fell 2.8 per cent in extended-hours trading after the US aluminum producer reported a big quarterly loss as it took a US$1.7 billion (S$2.2 billion) non-cash impairment charge on past smelter acquisitions. During the regular session, Alcoa slid 1.3 per cent to close at US$10.69.

Many large US retailers cut their earnings forecasts because of steep discounts they offered during the holidays to persuade reluctant consumers to buy. Shares of Bed Bath & Beyond fell 12.5 per cent to end at US$69.75 a day after the company lowered its fourth-quarter and full-year earnings estimates.

Family Dollar reported a weaker quarterly profit on Thursday as it discounted to win holiday shoppers. The stock dropped 2.1 per cent to close at US$64.97.

AT&T and Verizon Communications shares slumped a day after T-Mobile reported a fourth-quarter boost in customer growth and offered to pay customers to switch from rival services, escalating already intense competition in the US wireless market. AT&T shares ended down 2 per cent at US$33.54.

Verizon's stock slid 2.1 per cent to US$47.50.

Macy's was a bright spot for retailers. Its stock jumped 7.6 per cent to US$55.80 a day after the department store operator reported strong holiday sales and gave a preliminary forecast for 2014 that suggests it will continue to outpace its rivals.

Costco Wholesale Corp climbed 3.9 per cent to US$118.51 after the company's December same-store sales beat analysts' expectations.

The stock of Intercept Pharmaceuticals Inc skyrocketed 281.1 per cent to US$275.87 after the company said an analysis by an independent safety committee showed its liver disease drug met the main goal of a mid-stage trial.

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