North American markets traded lower Thursday as commodity prices sank on signs of slower growth in the eurozone and China.

In Toronto, the S&P/TSX composite index closed down 74.68 points, or 0.6 per cent, at 12,361.81, following most other major world markets lower.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 78.48 points, or 0.6 per cent, to 13,046.14. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 10.10 points, or 0.7 per cent, to 1,392.79, while the Nasdaq composite fell 12 points, or 0.4, to 3,063.32.

The Canadian dollar closed down three-quarters of a cent to 100.03 cents US as investors retreated to the perceived safety of the greenback.

April gold bullion closed down $7.80 at $1,642.50 US an ounce, while copper fell eight cents to $3.77 US a pound. Oil for May delivery was down $1.92 to $105.35 US on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Investors shrugged off a report showing an improving jobs situation in the U.S. and focused on disappointing data on Canadian retail trade and Employment Insurance claims from January, and weak manufacturing data from China and Europe.

Statistics Canada said retail sales rose a modest 0.5 per cent against expectations for a 1.8 per cent gain, with sales excluding autos particularly weak. It also reported the number of people receiving regular employment insurance benefits increased by 2.3 per cent or 12,400 in January to 561,100.

The U.S. Labour Department said Thursday that weekly applications dropped 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 348,000, the lowest level since February 2008. The four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, dipped to 355,000. That's also a four-year low.

Data shows growth slowing

Also weighing on the markets was a Chinese manufacturing index compiled by HSBC. Its main index fell to 48.1 in March from 49.6 in February. Figures below 50 indicate that manufacturing is contracting.

"Strong Chinese growth is the main reason behind rising oil prices the last couple of years," said Gene McGillian, a broker and oil analyst at Tradition Energy.

"As we see slower growth, the thought is that energy demand is going to take a hit."

A similarly weak eurozone survey from financial information company Markit only added to concerns. Its composite purchasing managers' index, which combines both the services and manufacturing sectors, fell to a below forecast 48.8 points in March from 49.3 the month before.

In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares closed down 0.8 per cent while Germany's DAX fell 1.3 per cent. The CAC-40 in France was off 1.6 per cent.

In Asia, The Nikkei 225 index in Tokyo ended 0.4 per cent higher at 10,127.08 after Japan announced it had posted its first trade surplus in five months in February, on a recovery in auto and electronics exports to the United States.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng closed up 0.2 per cent at 20,901.56 while mainland China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index slipped 0.1 per cent to 2,375.77.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press