NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. 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 .SPXRT slipped 0.2 percent after a number of retailers, including Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY.O) and Family Dollar FDO.N, slashed their earnings forecasts. The S&P telecom services sector index .SPLRCL fell 1.9 percent, 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 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 U.S. 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 .DJI fell 17.98 points or 0.11 percent, to end at 16,444.76. The S&P 500 .SPX inched up just 0.64 of a point, or 0.03 percent, to finish at 1,838.13. The Nasdaq Composite .IXIC dropped 9.417 points or 0.23 percent, to close at 4,156.194.
Alcoa Inc (AA.N) fell 2.8 percent in extended-hours trading after the U.S. aluminum producer reported a big quarterly loss as it took a $1.7 billion non-cash impairment charge on past smelter acquisitions. During the regular session, Alcoa slid 1.3 percent to close at $10.69.
Many large U.S. 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 percent to end at $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 percent to close at $64.97.
Shares of Five Below Inc (FIVE.O), a teen-oriented retailer of trendy jewelry and other items priced at $1 to $5, also tumbled more than 15 percent in extended-hours trading after cutting its earnings outlook. The stock ended the regular session at $43.59, down 3.2 percent.
AT&T (T.N) and Verizon Communications (VZ.N) 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 U.S. wireless market. AT&T shares ended down 2 percent at $33.54. Verizon's stock slid 2.1 percent to $47.50.
Macy's (M.N) was a bright spot for retailers. Its stock jumped 7.6 percent to $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 (COST.O) climbed 3.9 percent to $118.51 after the company's December same-store sales beat analysts' expectations.
The stock of Intercept Pharmaceuticals Inc (ICPT.O) skyrocketed 281.1 percent to $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.
About 6.72 billion shares traded on U.S. exchanges, above the 6.34 billion average so far this month, according to data from BATS Global Markets.
Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the New York Stock Exchange by a ratio of about 8 to 7. On the Nasdaq, decliners barely edged out advancers with 1,327 stocks falling and 1,249 shares advancing.
Editing by Jan Paschal