Stocks were little changed on Thursday despite data showing ongoing improvement in the labor market, as a rise in Spanish bond yields renewed concerns about the euro zone's financial health.
The number of Americans submitting claims for new jobless benefits fell to the lowest in nearly four years last week, according to government data, as a separate report showed the number of planned layoffs at U.S. firms fell to its lowest level in 10 months.
But the data did not reduce concerns about Spain and its ability to meet budget targets after poor demand at a Spanish bond sale on Wednesday. That heightened fears about funding difficulties for weaker euro-zone countries, with investors seeing an easing of the effects of the European Central Bank's huge liquidity injections.
The main story today will likely continue to be the situation with government finances in Europe. The market will be under pressure at least until the European close, then we can get a rally in the afternoon, said Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at Oakbrook Investments in Lisle, Illinois.
Thursday's jobless claims data have no direct relationship to the all-important March employment report due on Friday. But it could bolster the case that the pace of healing in the labor market is lowering the need for the Federal Reserve to do more to boost growth.
Economists polled by Reuters expect the employment report will show the U.S. economy added 203,000 jobs last month, for a fourth straight month of solid job creation, marking the longest stretch of monthly employment gains topping 200,000 since 1999.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was down 23.39 points, or 0.18 percent, at 13,051.36. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was down 1.48 points, or 0.11 percent, at 1,397.48. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was down 3.04 points, or 0.10 percent, at 3,065.05.
Retailers Victoria's Secret parent Limited Brands Inc , Target Corp , Macy's Inc and Gap Inc beat analysts' estimates for sales at stores open at least a year as they lured shoppers seeking spring merchandise.
Limited Brands shares fell 1 percent to $48.20, and Target shares rose 0.6 percent to $58.15. Macy's Inc added 0.3 percent to $41.04, and Gap shares were flat at around $26.60.
Constellation Brands Inc forecast earnings for its new fiscal year well below Wall Street estimates, sending the wine maker's shares down nearly 8 percent.
(Editing by Padraic Cassidy)