U.S. stocks edged lower on Thursday after minutes from the latest Federal Reserve meeting showed growing concern about the risks of its highly stimulative monetary policy.
Despite the concerns about the effects of its asset purchases, the Fed look set to continue its open-ended stimulus program for now.
The minutes from the December meeting showed a growing reticence about further increases in the central bank's $2.9 trillion balance sheet, which it expanded sharply in response to the financial crisis and recession of 2007-2009.
Stocks had pushed the benchmark S&P 500 index 4.3 percent higher during a two-day run as investors turned their focus to upcoming battles in Congress, including likelihood of bitter fights over spending cuts and raising the federal debt ceiling.
"As we look down the pathway here, there are some real issues in front of the market. There is going to be a new battle in two months over the debt ceiling and sequestration and fourth-quarter earnings are going to start to come into focus," said Stephen Massocca, managing director at Wedbush Morgan in San Francisco.
"There are some issues out there that could hold this market back, but on the other side of the ledger, zero interest rates are a tremendous stock market flotation device."
The rally in equities began on the last day of 2012 on optimism a deal would be reached to avert the "fiscal cliff," and avoid a possible recession. Gains continued on Wednesday, the first trading day of 2013, with Wall Street's best performance since Dec. 20, 2011 after Congress approved a fiscal compromise.
Retailers advanced after several major companies in the sector beat expectations of modest sales increases in December, with the S&P retail index up 0.8 percent and the Morgan Stanley retail index up 0.6 percent.
The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 17.47 points, or 0.13 percent, to 13,395.08. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index shed 2.30 points, or 0.16 percent, to 1,460.12. The Nasdaq Composite Index dipped 5.19 points, or 0.17 percent, to 3,107.07.
Economic data showed U.S. private-sector employers shrugged off a looming budget crisis and stepped up hiring in December, offering further evidence of underlying strength in the economy as 2012 ended.
The government's broader monthly payrolls report, due on Friday, is expected to show the economy created 150,000 jobs compared with 146,000 in November, according to a Reuters poll.
The U.S. unemployment rate is seen holding steady at 7.7 percent.
Retailers advanced after several major companies in the