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Stocks drop on European Central Bank's stimulus plans, energy slump

U.S. stock market edged lower as lower oil prices hurt energy stocks

The stock market posted slight losses Thursday after European Central Bank officials decided to delay any stimulus for the struggling continent until next year. Investors also braced for the release of Friday's closely watched U.S. jobs report.

Stocks had been solidly lower much of the day, but did recover some of their losses after news outlets reported that the European Central Bank would consider a large stimulus package for next month.

Earlier comments from ECB President Mario Draghi were initially interpreted to mean the bank wouldn't act until next year, but by late Thursday consensus was building that stimulus was imminent.

“The ECB and Draghi basically said, `we don't know what we are doing yet, but when we do it next month, it's going to be big,“’ said Ian Winer, head of equity trading at Wedbush Securities.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 12.52 points, or 0.1 percent, to 17,900.10. It was down nearly 100 points earlier in the day.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2.41 points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,071.92 and the Nasdaq composite fell 5.04 points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,769.44.

Energy stocks were among the hardest hit. The S&P 500's energy sector lost nearly 1 percent as the price of oil sank yet again. Benchmark U.S. crude fell 57 cents to close at $66.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on news that Saudi Arabia reduced its January prices to U.S. and Asian customers. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 28 cents to close at $69.64 on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

Bloomberg News reported that ECB officials are considering a large bond-purchasing program that will include European government debt, citing unnamed central bank figures. The report followed the ECB's decision Thursday to keep its main interest rate unchanged at a record low of 0.05 percent.

Draghi hinted at a news conference that the bank could act early next year. He said the ECB will reassess the success of its existing stimulus programs and the impact of low oil prices on Europe's economy. If needed, the ECB could do more, he said.

Draghi's comments and the Bloomberg News report indicate that the ECB is getting ready to make its own large-scale purchases of government bonds. The policy, known as quantitative easing, or “QE,” has been used by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan.

Europe has been a point of worry for investors all year. The economic sanctions that Europe imposed on Russia, one of its biggest trading partners, following Russia's annexation of Crimea has taken a toll on the entire continent. Europe has teetered on the brink of recession as Germany, Europe's largest economy, has stagnated. If Europe slipped into recession, it would be its third recession since 2008.

Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics, also expects a program of government bond purchases to be launched in January. “But whether it will be big and effective enough to revive the eurozone economy is another matter,” he added.

In the U.S., the main focus will be the November jobs report, which comes out Friday. Following some solid hiring data on Wednesday from private payrolls firm ADP, economists expect that employers added 225,000 jobs last month and that the unemployment rate slipped to 5.7 percent from 5.8 percent.

Traders got another piece of job-related news Thursday. The number of people who filed for unemployment benefits fell by 17,000 to 297,000, the Labor Department said. A reading below 300,000 has been a signal that hiring continues to pick up in the U.S.

“At current levels, (the jobless claims numbers) are consistent with a very low layoff rate and solid employment growth,” Guy Berger and Michelle Girard, economists at RBS, wrote in a note to clients.

U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.24 percent from 2.28 percent late Wednesday.

Barnes & Noble dropped $1.21, or 5.4 percent, to $21.03 after the company terminated its commercial agreement with Microsoft for its Nook e-reader. Barnes & Noble bought out Microsoft's stake in the Nook for $120 million in cash and stock, freeing the company to spin off its Nook business down the road. Microsoft rose 76 cents, or 1.6 percent, to $48.84.

In other energy futures trading:

— Wholesale gasoline fell 1.2 cents to close at $1.795 a gallon

— Heating oil fell 1.5 cents to close at $2.118 a gallon.

— Natural gas fell 15.6 cents to close at $3.649 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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