U.S. stocks edged lower on Thursday as the recent rally and light volume left investors reluctant to take on much more risk before the new year, despite a solid batch of economic data.

New U.S. claims for unemployment benefits dropped 34,000 to a seasonally adjusted 388,000, the Labor Department said, the lowest reading since early July 2008. That was well below economists' expectations for 415,000.

A report from the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago showed activity in the U.S. Midwest jumped unexpectedly in December, with help from a gain in employment and new orders. And the National Association of Realtors said contracts for pending sales of previously owned U.S. homes rose faster than expected in November, though sales remained below normal.

But analysts said investors were leery of taking large positions until next year, despite the positive data, as light holiday trading volume, coupled with the recent run-up, left the market more susceptible to volatile swings.

There's no denying that the economy is improving -- the reason we're not seeing a bigger move is because there's such light volume, and a lot of key players aren't around, said Wayne Kaufman, chief market analyst at John Thomas Financial in New York.

A lot of people are afraid that over the next week or two we could see a sharp pullback. That's become a common theme -- everyone thinks the pullback is coming, so no one wants to make any big bets.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dropped 19.49 points, or 0.17 percent, to 11,565.89. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> shed 2.36 points, or 0.19 percent, to 1,257.42. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> lost 3.99 points, or 0.15 percent, to 2,662.94.

On the penultimate trading day of the year, the S&P 500 <.SPX> is on track for its best December in nearly two decades. The index has gained 6.5 percent so far this month, closing on Wednesday at its highest level since September 8, 2008, and has risen in 17 of the last 20 sessions.

Anadarko Petroleum Corp jumped 7.2 percent to $75.86 after the Daily Mail reported BHP Billiton Ltd is lining up an offer for the company, possibly for $90 per share.

(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Padraic Cassidy)