Stocks edged lower on Thursday as investors locked in gains after a rally Wednesday, which was spurred by a deal by U.S. lawmakers to avert a "fiscal cliff" of austerity measures that had been due to kick in this year.
Losses were limited, however, by better-than-expected data that showed U.S. private-sector employers added 215,000 jobs in December. That was well above economists' expectations for a gain of 133,000 jobs, according to a Reuters survey.
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"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 ADP report beat forecasts partly due to "a snapback from (superstorm) Sandy, although we prefer to stick to our line of thought that says the economy is gaining momentum rather than losing it regardless of the impact of fiscal talks in Washington," he said.
The key payrolls report is due on Friday. A Reuters survey forecasts non-farm payrolls rose to 150,000 last month, from 146,000 in November.
A separate report Thursday showed the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, but the data was too distorted by year-end holidays to offer a clear read of labor market conditions.
The Dow Jones industrial average was down 45.92 points, or 0.34 percent, at 13,366.63. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was down 3.62 points, or 0.25 percent, at 1,458.80. The Nasdaq Composite Index was down 8.15 points, or 0.26 percent, at 3,104.11.
Wall Street began the new year Wednesday with a rally and their best performance in more than a year, sparked by a last-minute deal in Washington to avert a fiscal cliff of automatic massive tax hikes and spending cuts that, in the worst-case scenario, would have hurt the nation's economic growth.
The minutes of the Federal Reserve's policy meeting last month will be released at 2:00 p.m. EST (1900 GMT). The minutes will give details on the discussions of the Federal Open Market Committee's December 11-12 meeting.
U.S. retailer Costco Wholesale Corp reported a better-than-expected 9 percent rise in December sales at stores open at least a year, mainly helped by an additional sales day in the reporting period. Costco shares rose 1.3 percent to $102.80.
Gap Inc will buy women's fashion boutique Intermix Inc for $130 million to enter the luxury clothes market, the Wall Street Journal reported. The stock rose 3 percent to $32.28.
Family Dollar Stores Inc reported a lower-than-expected quarterly profit as its emphasis on selling more everyday items like cigarettes and soft drinks put pressure on margins. The stock fell 12 percent to $56.47.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum)