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At the open: TSX dips on retreating metals

The Toronto stock market was slightly lower Thursday morning while traders looked to U.S. job creation data coming out Friday.

The S&P/TSX composite index eased 6.56 points to 13,608.07, held back by declining mining stocks as gold and copper prices retreated.

The Canadian dollar fell 0.42 of a cent to 92.14 cents (U.S.) amid weak housing data.

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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 were higher 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 gained 23.76 points to 16,486.5, the Nasdaq gained 12.23 points to 4,177.84 while the S&P 500 index was ahead 3.96 points to 1,841.45.

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 key stimulus program, the massive monthly bond purchases. They were 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.

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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 1.75 per cent while March copper lost four cents to $3.31 (U.S.) a pound. Teck Resources dropped 55 cents to $25.73 (Canadian).

February bullion slipped $1.20 to $1,224.30 (U.S.) an ounce, pushing the gold sector down 0.34 per cent.

The energy sector dipped 0.1 per cent as the February crude contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange gained 43 cents to $92.76 (U.S.) a barrel.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. 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 rose 12 cents to $35.36 (Canadian).

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Industrials led advancers, up 0.3 per cent.

A spokesman with Canadian National Railways says it appears a sudden wheel or axle failure caused a freight train to derail in northwestern New Brunswick, causing a large fire that continues to burn. Jim Feeny 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 three cents higher to $58.66.

Techs also advanced with BlackBerry up eight cents to $9.28.

On the earnings front, pharmacy chain The Jean Coutu Group (PJC) Inc. 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 dipped eight cents to $18.55.

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 0.06 per cent and the Paris CAC 40 dipped 0.21 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.

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