The Toronto stock market was lower Wednesday amid a generally positive read on the U.S. housing sector. Traders also looked for hints as to when the U.S. Federal Reserve may wind up its latest round of stimulus.The S&P/TSX composite index stepped back 47.37 points to 12,762.84, led by sliding mining stocks, while the TSX Venture Exchange gave back 19.16 points to 1,152.64.The Canadian dollar traded at a fresh seven-month low, down 0.44 of a cent at 98.39 cents US.U.S. indexes were lower with the Dow Jones industrials down 13.73 points to 14,021.94. The Nasdaq declined 12.16 points to 3,201.44 while the S&P 500 index was down 5.23 points at 1,525.71.U.S. housing starts for January came in lower than expected — at an annual rate of 890,000, down from December’s read of 954,000 and below expectations of 922,000.However, analysts pointed out that the reduction in January was driven entirely by the often volatile multiples component. Starts of single-family homes actually picked up marginally to a new four-year high. Building permits rose 1.8 per cent at an annualized rate of 920,000 in January, up from 909,000 in December.Traders will also pore over the minutes from the latest interest rate meeting of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee for an indication whether the central bank may want to wind up its latest quantitative easing effort by the end of the year.Office Depot and OfficeMax plan to merge in an all-stock deal worth about US$1.2 billion. The move would combine the number two and three biggest office supply retailers and lead to consolidation in an industry that analysts have said for years has too many stores.There was some confusion about the deal this morning when Office Depot reported terms of the deal in a release on its website and then removed it, before restoring it after the market opened.Gold stocks led TSX decliners, down 2.6 per cent as April bullion fell beneath the key level of US$1,600 an ounce, losing $23.60 to US$1,580.60. Kinross Gold Corp. (TSX:K) faded 32 cents to C$7.72 while Iamgold (TSX:IMG) lost 30 cents to $7.76.The base metals component shed two per cent while March copper declined four cents to US$3.61 a pound. Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B) dropped 69 cents to C$32.08 while HudBay Minerals (TSX:HBM) fell 63 cents to $10.01.The March crude contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange was down $1.78 to US$94.88 a barrel ahead of the release of the latest data on U.S. inventories. The energy sector dipped 0.37 per cent. Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ) was down 28 cents to $30.79.Consumer staples stocks also weakened as grocer Loblaw Cos. (TSX:L) lost 59 cents to $39.30. The financial sector led advancers ahead of the start of a series of quarterly earnings from Canada’s banks next week.“We’re looking at the majors giving us some decent earnings and dividend increases (from) Royal Bank (TSX:RY), TD Bank (TSX:TD) and maybe Scotiabank (TSX:BNS),” said Chris King, portfolio manager at Morgan, Meighen and Associates. “And capital markets are positive so the swing things are swinging our way this quarter. And that bodes well for the next quarter.” Scotiabank (TSX:BNS) rose 82 cents to $59.97.Markets have largely traded sideways in this month following strong gains racked up in January. Part of the reason is the looming sequester in the U.S. That is a huge package of across the board spending cuts worth US$85 billion that are set to take effect at the end of the month unless lawmakers can agree on other cuts that would be more selective. It would cut a big chunk out of American economic growth, a worrisome prospect for a struggling economy.“We had a good funds flow in January and you probably got a little bit of post-move jump-in among some retail investors and/or institutional people looking to increase their weightings before the next quarter,” King said. “But I can’t help but think we might have some consolidation here and I welcome it.”After the markets closed Tuesday, computer maker Dell Inc. posted net income of $530 million, or 30 cents per share, for its fiscal fourth quarter, which ended Feb. 1. That was down from $764 million, or 43 cents per share, in the quarter a year ago.Two weeks ago, Dell’s founder and CEO Michael Dell and a group of investors agreed to buy the company for $24.4 billion with a plan to turn it around.Crombie Real Estate Investment Trust (TSX:CRR.UN) said Tuesday it is spending C$132 million to buy four retail plaza properties in Alberta. Crombie owns 169 commercial properties in nine provinces, comprising about 1.3 million square metres of rentable space. Its units were down 13 cents to $14.55.On Wednesday, renewable energy producer Boralex Inc. (TSX:BLX) reported that quarterly net income fell to $1.2 million or three cents per share, down sharply from $8.2 million a year ago. Revenue from energy sales slid 6.5 per cent in what the company has described as a “transitional year.” Its stock rose 14 cents to $9.30.European bourses were mixed with London’s FTSE 100 index up 0.21 per cent and Frankfurt’s DAX down 0.35 per cent, while the Paris CAC 40 fell 0.78 per cent.