The S&P/TSX composite index edged up 4.6 points to 11,330.68. But that was well off early gains of almost 100 points as financial stocks lost ground because of worries about damage to the eurozone banking system if Greece ends up leaving the monetary union.
The TSX Venture Exchange was ahead 10.33 points to 1,228.07.
The Canadian dollar lost 0.62 of a cent to a four-month low of 98.13 cents US. The loonie has slid almost three US cents since the start of the month as traders have avoided risky assets like commodities and resource-based currencies like the loonie.
U.S. markets were lower as a key business barometer for the U.S. Northeast unexpectedly weakened in May. The monthly survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia fell to minus 5.8 from 8.5 in April, well below expectations.
The Dow Jones industrials declined 156.06 points to 12,442.49.
The Nasdaq composite index fell 60.35 points to 2,813.69 and the S&P 500 index dropped 19.94 points to 1,304.86.
Greece is being kept afloat by huge international bailouts. But there are increasing worries that parties demanding an end to the grinding austerity measures that made those bailouts possible will hold the balance of power after next month's elections.
Such a move could force Greece out of the eurozone with unpredictable consequences for the region's financial system and the wider global economy.
The financial sector lost 1.6 per cent amid worries about the health of eurozone banks as investors worry that destabilization could also hit other heavily indebted countries such as Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy.
Royal Bank (TSX:RY) was off $1.07 to $51.96 while TD Bank (TSX:TD) dropped $1.28 to $77.65.
Shares in Bankia, the recently-nationalized Spanish bank, plunged by as much as 27 per cent Thursday on a local report that customers have withdrawn more than €1 billion since the state took it over last week.
The bank is Spain’s fourth largest and is heavily exposed to the country's collapsed property market.
And on Wednesday, Greece’s president said depositors were pulling hundreds of millions of euros out of banks, weakening the country’s already strained financial system.
"You’re already seeing a run on the banks happening ... and it’s coming more to a head now," said Chris Kuflik, investment adviser at ScotiaMcLeod.
Meanwhile, commodity prices were mixed after a string of bruising losses that have left prices for oil and metals at levels not seen in months.
Demand concerns have been a big reason for the slide in prices. But commodities have also been driven downward by the rising American currency. That’s because prices are denominated in U.S. dollars and a higher greenback makes oil and metals more expensive for holders of other currencies.
But the base metals component lost 1.15 per cent as copper gained a penny to US$3.48 after ending Wednesday's session at its lowest level since mid-January. First Quantum Minerals (TSX:FM) declined 51 cents to C$17.23 while Northern Dynasty Minerals (TSX:NDM) jumped 40 cents or 10.4 per cent to $4.24.
The energy sector gained 0.1 per cent as the June crude contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange lost early traction to move down 25 cents to US$92.56 a barrel after closing Wednesday at its lowest level since last November. Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ) climbed 43 cents to C$29.76.
Imperial Oil (TSX:IMO) says it may sell its refinery in Dartmouth, N.S., or convert it into a terminal. It noted increased competition and lower demand for the refinery's products and said the facility has not met financial expectations. Imperial shares shed 99 cents to $41.01.
The gold sector ran up about 5.75 per cent as bullion gained $38.30 to US$1,574.90 an ounce after closing at its worst level since last July. Barrick Gold Corp. (TSX:ABX) climbed $2.45 to C$38.16 while Goldcorp Inc. (TSX:G) ran up $2.29 to $35.48.
Traders have also been demanding more money to buy government debt.
Spain managed to auction nearly €2.5 billion in medium-term debt amid strong demand but at sharply higher interest rates. The Spanish Treasury on Thursday sold three kinds of notes, two maturing in 2015 and one in 2016. Of them only one was strictly comparable to previous sales and the interest rate, or yield, on that three-year bond went up to 4.87 per cent from 4.04 per cent on May 3.
There was also some high drama ahead of Canadian Pacific Railway's (TSX:CP) annual meeting Thursday, with chief executive Fred Green stepping down after his defenders lost a proxy battle.
U.S. fund manager Bill Ackman has pushed for Green's removal since last year.
One of the top priorities will be to begin the process of replacing Green, likely with Hunter Harrison, a retired former CEO of rival Canadian National Railway (TSX:CN), although Ackman said the appointment isn’t a done deal.
"They mounted a good fight," added Kuflik.
"Hunter Harrison did a fantastic job at CN and CP did need a shakeup because their metrics were nowhere near as good as CN’s."
CP shares were up 65 cents to $76.51.
In other corporate news, Sears Canada (TSX:SCC) shares fell $1.70 or 12.93 per cent to $11.45 after it said its U.S. parent will dramatically reduce its holdings in the troubled department store chain and may sell all of its stake. About 95 per cent of the common shares of Sears Canada are currently owned by Sears Holdings Corp. (NYSE:SHLD), which also owns the Sears and Kmart department store chains in the United States.