NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks ended little changed and European equities slipped on Wednesday as investors paused after recent rallies, while the euro fell before a European Central Bank meeting that could reveal concerns about the currency's strength.
Traders awaited fresh incentives to push markets higher after boosting the S&P 500 index to five-year highs and euro zone equities to 1-1/2-year peaks.
Disagreement between Germany and France over the exchange rate for the euro stoked concern about stability in the euro zone, adding to uncertainty over the outcome of upcoming Italian elections and a corruption scandal in Spain.
The ECB is widely forecast to keep rates at a record low 0.75 percent when it meets on Thursday, but policymakers may examine whether the strength of the euro is undermining a recovery in troubled economies.
"Overall, we believe that the next near-term market dip should provide an opportunity to buy stocks ahead of rallies higher in the coming months, but we are sceptical about the long-term sustainability of these gains due to the maturing age of the bull market," said Ari Wald, equity research analyst at C&Co\PrinceRidge in New York.
The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 7.22 points, or 0.05 percent, at 13,986.52. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index ended up 0.83 point, or 0.05 percent, at 1,512.12. The Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 3.10 points, or 0.10 percent, to 3,168.48.
Transportation stocks were among the worst performers. Shares of CH Robinson Worldwide fell 9.7 percent to $60.50 and was the biggest percentage loser on the Nasdaq 100 after the freight transport company posted a lower-than-expected adjusted quarterly profit.
The S&P 500 has gained 6 percent so far this year, lifting the benchmark equity index to highs last seen in December 2007. The Dow briefly climbed above 14,000 for the first time in more than five years during the rally.
The EuroSTOXX 50 gauge of euro zone blue chips fell 1.3 percent to 2,617.35, its weakest finish since early December and further retreating from a 1-1/2 year peak of 2,754.80 set last week.
The pan-European FTSEurofirst slipped 0.2 percent to 1,152.12, its losses tempered by a solid performance from UK blue chips.
MSCI's all-country world equity index was up 0.1 percent at 355.45.
After France complained about the euro's level, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said the currency was not over-valued and that competitiveness could not be achieved via exchange rates.
The euro was 0.5 percent lower against the dollar at $1.3517 and lost 0.6 percent to 126.47 yen.
"The focus is speculation over tomorrow's ECB statement and President (Mario) Draghi's press conference," said Camilla Sutton, chief currency strategist at Scotia Capital in Toronto. "We expect President Draghi to sound notably cautious and EUR to weaken on the back of it."
Japan's yen, at the centre of concerns that some countries are trying to devalue their currencies to boost growth, hit a near-three-year low earlier in the day on the view a new Bank of Japan governor will ease policy aggressively once in office.
The yen fell 0.1 percent to 93.54.
The yen's decline spurred Japan's Nikkei index to climb to its highest in more than four years.
In oil markets, Brent settled up 21 cents at $116.73 a barrel but remained below the previous day's session high, the highest point since mid-September.
U.S. crude dropped 2 cents to settle at $96.62.
U.S. government debt prices rose on weaker stocks, while nagging worries about possible political shake-ups in Italy and Spain also rekindled demand for safe-haven bonds. The benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note was up 12/32 in price to yield 1.9621 percent.
Bond prices also climbed as traders sought to profit from the Federal Reserve's latest purchase of Treasuries, which was part its $44 billion monthly program aimed at lowering borrowing costs and unemployment.
"There are still a lot of possible disruptive currents coming from Europe," said Lou Brien, market strategist at DRW Trading in Chicago. "The problems there have not gone away, but the market had just ignored them until this week."