Stocks near flat as investors look for Fed tapering clues in jobs

North American stocks were relatively flat Thursday as traders looked to U.S. job creation data coming out Friday.The S&P/TSX composite index eased 13.01 points to 13,601.62, held back by declining mining stocks as gold and copper prices retreated.The Canadian dollar was off the worst levels of the session mid-morning but still down 0.34 of a cent to 92.22 cents US amid weak housing data.Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. said housing starts came in at an annual rate of 189,672 units in December, which met economist expectations. That was a decrease from 197,797 in November.Other data from Statistics Canada showed that contractors took out $6.8 billion worth of building permits in November, down 6.7 per cent from October. The agency noted that the decline in December followed an eight per cent gain in November.U.S. indexes turned weaker as traders took in a strong reading on American jobless insurance claims.The U.S. Labor Department reported that applications for jobless insurance fell by 15,000 last week to 330,000.The Dow Jones industrials lost 19.68 points to 16,443.06, the Nasdaq gained 3.57 points to 4,162.04 while the S&P 500 index was ahead 0.32 of a point to 1,837.81.Traders hope that Friday’s U.S. non-farm payrolls report will provide some direction on how the U.S. Federal Reserve plans to proceed on further tapering to its massive monthly bond purchases.The key stimulus program was cut last month from $85 billion a month to $75 billion, making further cuts contingent on economic performance, particularly the job market.U.S. markets finished in the red Wednesday after the minutes from the Fed meeting last month failed to provide any clues as to how fast the Fed might proceed.Data released Wednesday indicated that Friday’s government employment report could exceed expectations that 195,000 jobs were created last month. Payroll firm ADP said that the U.S. private sector alone created 238,000 jobs in December.Canadian jobs data also comes out on Friday with expectations that about 13,000 jobs were cranked out during December.The base metals sector led decliners on the TSX, down 2.2 per cent while March copper lost three cents to US$3.31 a pound. Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B) dropped 75 cents to C$25.53 while HudBay Minerals (TSX:HBM) fell 44 cents to $8.37.February bullion was up $1.50 to US$1,227 an ounce, pushing the gold sector down 0.5 per cent. Kinross Gold (TSX:K) faded five cents to C$4.86.The energy sector dipped 0.2 per cent as the February crude contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange gained 18 cents to US$92.51 a barrel.Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (TSX:CNQ) has decided to keep the Montney shale gas assets that it put on the market early last year. The Calgary-based oil, gas and oilsands producer says it received “a number of expressions of interest” for the assets but none was sufficient to merit a deal at this time. Its shares added three cents to C$35.27.The industrials sector made slight gains with Canadian Pacific Railway (TSX:CP) ahead $1.69 to $159.43.The federal Transportation Safety Board says their preliminary investigation into a Canadian National Railways train derailment in northwestern New Brunswick has found a cracked wheel and a broken rail but it’s too early to say what caused the train to leave the tracks.A CN spokesman says the priority now is to extinguish the fire on three cars carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas, along with burning diesel. CN shares were 47 cents lower to $58.16.On the earnings front, pharmacy chain The Jean Coutu Group (PJC) Inc. (TSX:PJC.A) had $62.5 million of net income or 30 cents a share in its fiscal third quarter, an increase from $56.2 million a year earlier and two cents higher than analyst estimates. However, the Quebec-based pharmacy chain’s revenue were below estimates, falling to $712.5 million from $716.6 million. Its shares gained four cents to $18.67.Investors also looked to the release of earnings from resource giant Alcoa after the close.European bourses were lacklustre after the European Central Bank left its key interest rate unchanged at a record low of 0.25 per cent.London’s FTSE 100 index added 0.01 per cent, Frankfurt’s DAX inched up 0.03 per cent and the Paris CAC 40 dipped 0.16 per cent.Earlier in Asia, Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 shed 1.5 per cent and China’s benchmark Shanghai Composite Index fell 0.8 per cent while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 0.9 per cent.