NEW YORK – Stocks took a breather on Thursday a day after celebrating Washington's deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" with the biggest one-day rally in a year.
Investors turned their focus to potentially bigger battles ahead in Congress, including a likely bitter partisan battle over raising the federal debt ceiling.
"I would be cautious of big moves going forward. There are still some clouds over the horizon, with the fiscal issue of the government. We don't know how they're going to pan out, but in all likelihood there's not going to be a calamity," said Jeff Meyerson, head of trading at Sunrise Securities in New York.
Better-than-expected hiring data did not boost equity prices despite showing U.S. private employers added 215,000 jobs in December. Economists had expected a gain of 133,000 jobs, according to a Reuters poll.
"The report now sets the stage, as we expect a strong non-farm payroll reading on Friday," said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co in New York
The government's broader monthly payrolls report, due on Friday, is expected to show the economy created 150,000 jobs compared with 146,000 in November, according to a Reuters poll. The U.S. unemployment rate is seen holding steady at 7.7 percent.
In another report on Thursday, the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, but year-end holidays likely distorted the picture of labor market conditions.
The Dow Jones industrial average was down 7.85 points, or 0.06 percent, at 13,404.70. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index gained 0.72 points, or 0.05 percent, at 1,463.14. The Nasdaq Composite Index rose 0.71 points, or 0.02 percent, at 3,112.98.
Wednesday's rally allowed Wall Street to open 2013 with its best performance in over a year after the House of Representatives late on Tuesday passed a measure to avert the fiscal cliff, which could have caused a recession.
Shares in U.S. retailer Costco Wholesale Corp rose 1 percent to $102.51 after the company reported a better-than-expected 9 percent rise in December sales at stores open at least a year, primarily boosted by an additional sales day in the reporting period.
Gap Inc stock rose 0.3 percent to $31.47 after larger gains early on, following news that the retailer will buy women's fashion boutique Intermix Inc for $130 million to enter the luxury clothes market, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The S&P Energy index had the largest gains of the major sector indexes, at 0.44 percent, led in part by CONSOL Energy , which said it expects to sell more non-core assrets in 2013. CONSOL was up 2.9 percent to $31.92.
Family Dollar Stores Inc stock fell 11 percent to $56.96 on the company's report of lower-than-expected quarterly profit as its emphasis on selling more everyday items like cigarettes and soft drinks put pressure on margins.
(Additional reporting by Angela Moon, Editing by Bernadette Baum and Kenneth Barry)