Stocks struggle for direction ahead of U.S. job data

PARIS - World stock markets struggled to find direction Wednesday despite mostly encouraging economic data from the U.S. and eurozone.

Eurostat, the EU's statistics office, said retail sales in the eurozone jumped 1.4 percent in November, far more than expected, while the unemployment rate held steady at 12.1 percent for the eighth month running.

Although the figures suggest the eurozone recovery might pick up, the bloc still faces big problems -- the unemployment rate is at a record high and there are huge disparities across the region.

By late morning in Europe, France's CAC-40 was down 0.3 percent 4,251, while the DAX in Germany dropped 0.2 percent 9,491. Britain's FTSE index fell 0.3 percent to 6,736.

The euro fell slightly to $1.3588, although that price is still quite high.

"While signs of stabilizing labor markets is relatively encouraging, unemployment remains worryingly high across the eurozone and it seems unlikely to come down markedly any time soon," said Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight. "Economic activity will likely remain too limited in the near term at least to generate many jobs."

Earlier, Asian stocks mostly rose. Asian traders tend to be very sensitive to the U.S. economy, and there are signs that it's picking up steam. A decline in the U.S. trade deficit for November, which was partly due to increased domestic oil production, has raised expectations that fourth quarter economic growth will be higher than 3 percent.

Tokyo's Nikkei 225 gained 1.9 percent, closing at 16,121.45 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 1.3 percent to 22,996.59. Benchmarks in India, Southeast Asia and Taiwan also rose. China's Shanghai Composite lost early gains, closing 0.2 percent lower at 2,044.34.

Later Wednesday, payroll processor ADP issues its report on U.S. job growth among private companies for December. That will give investors more information about how the American economy is faring.

Ahead of those numbers, the U.S. market looked ready to open fairly flat. Dow futures were down 0.1 percent  at 16,446, while S&P futures fell the same rate to 1,829.

In one sign there is hope the global economy is improving, energy prices rose Wednesday. Benchmark crude was up 12 cents to $93.79.

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