* GDP and jobless claims data beat expectations
* Apple hits 52-week high after China Mobile comments
* J.C. Penney falls on Morgan Stanley note
* Dow off 0.2 pct, S&P 500 down 0.2 pct, Nasdaq off 0.04 pct
By Rodrigo Campos
NEW YORK, Dec 5 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks edged lower on Thursday after a round of mixed economic data left traders guessing how soon the Federal Reserve would begin to wind down an asset-purchase program that has helped equities rally.
Gross domestic product grew at an annualized rate of 3.6 percent in the third quarter, the fastest pace since the first quarter of 2012, compared with the 2.8 percent pace reported earlier. Economists polled by Reuters had expected growth would be revised up to 3.0 percent.
But strong inventory accumulation in the face of sluggish domestic demand means businesses will need to draw down on stocks, which will weigh on GDP growth this quarter.
The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, however, a hopeful sign for the labor market’s recovery.
Traders have been trying to second-guess how the Fed views strong data and if the numbers would be strong enough for the U.S. central bank to start to trim its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying program that has been a pillar of this year’s rally. The Dow, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite are up more than 20 percent so far this year.
“This data is spilling into a market that doesn’t know how to react to good and bad (economic) news,” said Drew Wilson, an analyst at Fenimore Asset Management in Cobleskill, New York.
“Bargains are harder and harder to find,” he said, pointing to the rally in equities this year. When the market reacts negatively to expectations of the Fed’s next move, he said, “those become buying opportunities for us.”
Expectations for a near-term start to the Fed’s tapering were offset after Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said the GDP data “doesn’t make a trend and ... doesn’t drive me to the conclusion that we’ve had a breakout in terms of growth.”
The Fed has reiterated that its quantitative easing program is data-dependent.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 30.82 points or 0.19 percent, to 15,858.95. The S&P 500 lost 4.29 points or 0.24 percent, to 1,788.52. The Nasdaq Composite dropped 1.491 points or 0.04 percent, to 4,036.51.
The Dow and the S&P 500 are on track to post their first negative week in nine.
Apple shares shot up 1.3 percent to $572.11 - off a 52-week high of $575.14 - after China Mobile Ltd, the country’s largest mobile operator, said it was still negotiating to offer iPhones on its network. A media report had earlier said the long-awaited agreement had been reached.
But Microsoft shares fell 3.6 percent to $37.52 in heavy volume. This was the stock’s largest daily drop in three months, making it the biggest points decliner by far in the Nasdaq 100 and outweighing Apple’s boost.
J.C. Penney shares slid 7.4 percent to $8.95 after Morgan Stanley reiterated its “underweight” rating on the stock and said November’s 10 percent sales growth was not enough to change the company’s outlook.
Other major U.S. retailers posted disappointing sales for November as cautious shoppers pinched their pennies at the start of the holiday season.
Costco shares fell 1.5 percent to $121.11 after he warehouse club chain said sales at stores open at least a year rose 2 percent, below the 3.3 percent increase that analysts were expecting.
But Dollar General Corp gained 6.4 percent to $59.94 and ranked as the S&P 500’s best performer after the discount retailer posted third-quarter earnings and said same-store sales rose 4.4 percent in the same period.