By Caroline Valetkevitch
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks declined on Thursday, taking a step back from their recent advance, prompted by comments by the ECB president on the euro and Europe's outlook.
The euro currency dropped against the safe-haven dollar and yen, spurring a retreat from risky assets such as stocks, after European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said the exchange rate was important to growth and price stability. Investors took that as a sign the bank is concerned about the euro's advance and its effect on the region's economy.
Growth sectors were among the weakest performers on the S&P 500: the S&P 500 materials index was down 0.6 percent while the S&P energy index was down 0.5 percent. Housing stocks also declined, with a housing sector index off 1.4 percent.
Despite the day's decline and weakness earlier this week, the stock market has been in an almost uninterrupted up trend for most of the year, with the S&P 500 up 5.8 percent so far for 2013.
Many analysts say some weakness at this point is no surprise.
"Given the amount the market moved in January, having a little bit of a pullback and some consolidation where the market goes sideways for a little while, we think would be a healthy sign," said Eric Marshall, director of research at Hodges Capital Management in Dallas.
Top U.S. retailers reported strong January sales after offering compelling merchandise that drew in shoppers facing a hit to their take-home pay from higher payroll taxes. But an index of retailers was down 0.3 percent.
The Dow Jones industrial average was down 42.47 points, or 0.30 percent, at 13,944.05. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was down 2.73 points, or 0.18 percent, at 1,509.39. The Nasdaq Composite Index was down 3.34 points, or 0.11 percent, at 3,165.13.
Shares of Apple
Though the earnings season is winding down, results continue to boost growth estimates for the fourth quarter. According to Thomson Reuters data through Thursday morning, of 317 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported earnings, 69 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, above a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.
Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies rose 5 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.
Akamai Technologies Inc
Among retailers, Macy's Inc
But Ann Inc
Economic data was mixed. Initial jobless claims dipped last week, with the four-week moving average falling to its lowest level since March 2008, signaling the economy continues to recover slowly.
A separate report said fourth-quarter productivity registered its biggest drop in nearly two years, while unit labor costs jumped 4.5 percent, more than economists expected.
Roughly 6.6 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and the NYSE MKT, compared with the 2012 average daily closing volume of about 6.45 billion.
Decliners outpaced advancers on the NYSE by nearly 4 to 3 and on the Nasdaq by about 5 to 3.
(Additional reporting by Angela Moon; Editing by Kenneth Barry and Nick Zieminski)