NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Europe--the poster child for global growth concerns--was back in the spotlight Thursday as investors wondered just when European Central Bank President Mario Draghi might finally pull the trigger on economic stimulus.
Much to the market's dismay, the ECB punted any decision until early next year. When pressed about how early, Draghi resorted to the kind of statements worthy of former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.
"Early means early," Draghi said. "It doesn't mean the next meeting. It depends very much on how our assessment will go."
The markets didn't find much to cheer about in that kind of outlook. The S&P 500 closed 0.12% lower, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average slipped 0.07% and the Nasdaq fell 0.11%.
Still, analysts remained confident that the ECB would act sooner than later.
"Like the Federal Reserve, the next move by the ECB -- both when and what -- will depend on the progression of the data," Sterne Agee's chief economist Lindsey Piegza wrote in a report. "It remains obvious the ECB is ready to take action if needed."
Still, timing remains a necessary concern as the Eurozone's conditions continues to worsen. The region has suffered widespread deflationary concerns and high unemployment, even in its most robust economies such as Germany. The ECB cut its 2015 growth forecasts for the eurozone to 1% from a September forecast of 1.6%. Eurozone inflation is expected to come in at 0.7%, down from a previous estimate of 1.1% and far from the ECB's 2% target.
Easing plans could come as soon as January, said Anthony Valeri, investment strategist for LPL Financial. "[Draghi's] comments really laid the groundwork for some a QE program to be announced in January," Valeri said in a call.
"Lowering the growth expectations, lowering inflation forecast, some of the cautionary comments he made all suggest that QE is coming. It's been telegraphed in prior meetings but this was the latest and probably strongest voice supporting outright bond purchases."
However, Wells Fargo senior equity strategist Scott Wren remains less optimistic. "The ECB is probably going to continue to not take the steps the market would like for longer than what the market expects," he said in an interview.
"They're going to be slow to actually do things other than just jawbone," Wren added. "They're going to keep it vague [since Germany's] Bundesbank will only be dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing that they should do things like quantitative easing."
The ECB announced earlier Thursday that it was leaving its key rate unchanged at 0.05% in its final meeting of the year. Last month, the central bank announced it had begun to purchase asset-backed securities in a move to stimulate the eurozone.
Crude oil prices were falling again with West Texas Intermediate dropping 0.74% to below $67 a barrel. Major oilers, which had climbed earlier in the week, were falling on Thursday. Exxon Mobil (XOM) slid 0.61%, Chevron (CVX) dropped 1.3% and BP (BP) fell 2.2%.
Airlines were again receiving the benefits of sliding commodity prices. JetBlue (JBLU) added 1.8%, Southwest Airlines (LUV) climbed 0.83%, Hawaiian Holdings (HA) increased 6.2% and United Continental (UAL) spiked 4.1%.
U.S. jobless claims came in just above economists' estimates for a total 295,000. A week earlier, claims climbed above 300,000 for the first time since September. The release comes ahead of the Labor Department's monthly jobs figures on Friday. Economists expect 230,000 jobs to have been added over the month, higher than October's 214,000 total. The unemployment rate is forecast to remain at 5.8%.
Enbridge (ENB) said it would bump its dividend up by 33% and that it planned to transfer ownership of Canadian pipelines to reduce funding costs. Shares added 10.3%.
Avago Technologies (AVGO) beat fourth-quarter earnings estimates and generated revenue 115% higher year over year. Shares surged 8.4%.
-- Written by Keris Alison Lahiff in New York.