Stocks close modestly lower

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on a day when investors were thinking of interest rates and holiday sales figures.

NEW YORK - Stocks closed modestly lower Monday, as traders returned from the Thanksgiving holiday to focus on early signs of how the holiday shopping season may turn out, and where interest rates may go in the United States and Europe.

The Dow Jones industrial average lost 78.57 points, or 0.4 percent, to fall to 17,719.92. The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 9.70 points, or 0.5 percent, to 2,080.41, and the Nasdaq composite lost 18.86 points, or 0.4 percent, to 5,108.67.

Consumer discretionary stocks were among the biggest decliners, including the big department stores like Macy's, Kohl's, Wal-Mart, and Target. Initial data from the first holiday shopping weekend showed shoppers were not going to stores as much as last year.

"We believe Black Friday has gone from a period of management excitement to one of anguish," Nomura retail analysts Simeon Siegel, Gene Vladimirov, and Julie Kim wrote in a note to investors.

Investment bank analysts observed the department stores having to do deep discounting to attract shoppers to their stores. But data from research firms like ChannelAdvisor showed strong growth in sales online, which could suggest consumers decided to spend online instead of in bricks-and-mortar shops.

Consumer discretionary stocks fell 1 percent, compared with the 0.5 percent drop in the S&P 500. Some of the more notable decliners were Macy's, which fell 91 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $39.08; Wal-Mart, which fell $1.05, or 1.8 percent, to $58.84; and Urban Outfitters, which fell $1.25, or 5.3 percent, to $22.40. Even online retail giant Amazon dropped $8.46, or 1.3 percent, to $664.80.

More broadly, investors are also focused on this week's European Central Bank meeting and the release of U.S. jobs data.

The ECB is widely expected to give the region's economy another dose of stimulus as it tries to keep a recovery going and get inflation closer to 2 percent. The stimulus is likely to include increasing the amount banks have to pay to park money at the ECB, giving them an incentive to lend it instead.

While the ECB moves toward increasing stimulus, the Federal Reserve is getting ready to start raising interest rates for the first time since June 2006. A series of U.S. economic reports this week, culminating with Friday's jobs survey for November, could cement investors' expectations for a rate hike at the Fed's next policy meeting in mid-December.

"Unless this report is a total disaster, I think it's very, very likely the Fed is going to raise in December," said Scott Wren, senior equity strategist at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute.