* Trading expected to be light in final day of the year
* Crude oil weakens again
* Jobless claims rise more than expected in latest week
* Indexes off: Dow 0.1 pct, S&P 0.2 pct, Nasdaq 0.04 pct (Updates to afternoon trading, changes byline)
By Chuck Mikolajczak
NEW YORK, Dec 31 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were little changed on Wednesday, putting major indexes on track to close out 2014 just off record levels, as crude oil prices continued their descent.
While the market’s seasonal trend of modest moves and low volume continued, there was heavier action in the energy space. U.S. Crude oil lost 2.1 percent, the fourth drop of at least 2 percent in the past five sessions, putting the commodity at its lowest since May 2009. Brent shed 1.7 percent to $56.88.
The S&P Energy index, easily the worst performing sector of the year with a decline of more that 9 percent, edged down 0.1 percent Wednesday. Diamond Offshore fell 2.6 percent to $37.08 and Noble Corp was off 2.3 percent at $16.65.
Equities have lost steam heading into the New Year after rallying nearly 6 percent over eight sessions, sparked by the U.S. Federal Reserve’s commitment to be “patient” about raising interest rates and positive economic data.
Still, the S&P 500 has risen in seven of the past nine sessions, hitting a series of intraday and closing records, and is up more than 12 percent for the year. The stock market will be closed Thursday.
“I don’t think investors, traders, markets have much in the way of energy left to price in anything that is dramatically going to alter our year-end trade,” said Peter Kenny, chief market strategist at Clearpool Group in New York.
“The fact of the matter is, markets put in a solid year in spite of significant headwinds that could have easily derailed a multi-year bull market.”
NephroGenex Inc soared 197.5 percent to $13.83 a day after it said its lead drug was found to be safe in patients with diabetic nephropathy in a cardiac safety study. More than 4.2 million shares traded, by far the stock’s most active day.
Jobless claims rose more than expected in the latest week, snapping four straight weeks of declines, though the rise was not enough to change views of sustained labor market strength.
Separately, U.S. Midwest business activity slowed more than expected in December, while November pending home sales were stronger than forecast.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 18.32 points, or 0.1 percent, to 17,964.75, the S&P 500 lost 4.06 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,076.29 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 1.83 points, or 0.04 percent, to 4,775.61.
For the year, the Dow is up 8.4 percent, on pace for its sixth straight annual gain, and the Nasdaq is up 14.3 percent. The best-performing S&P component in 2014 is Southwest Airlines Co up 126 percent, while the worst is Transocean Ltd , down 62 percent.
Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE 1,603 to 1,404, for a 1.14-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,508 issues rose and 1,193 fell, for a 1.26-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.
The S&P 500 was posting 37 new 52-week highs and 6 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite was recording 111 new highs and 28 lows. (Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Nick Zieminski)