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A loonie is pictured in North Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, Dec.31, 2013.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian dollar closed sharply lower Thursday as traders took in readings showing a slowdown in the housing sector and looked to the release Friday of December job numbers.

The loonie closed off the worst levels of the session to drop 0.41 of a cent to 92.15 cents (U.S.) as the currency rides at its lowest level since the end of September, 2009. It cracked the 92-cent level during the day, going as low as 91.95 cents.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. said housing starts for December came in at an annual rate of 189,672 units in December, within expectations of economists but a decrease from 197,797 in November.

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"Look for further cooling in starts this year to levels consistent with demographic demand," warned BMO Nesbitt Burns senior economist Robert Kavcic.

Other data from Statistics Canada showed that contractors took out $6.8-billion (Canadaian) worth of building permits in November, down 6.7 per cent from October. The agency noted that the decline in December followed an 8 per cent gain in November.

The dollar was already down sharply before the housing data came out. The currency has fallen more than 1.75 cents (U.S.) since last Friday, buffeted by data that showed Canada's trade deficit grew last fall.

Another report showed the U.S. trade deficit dropped 12.9 per cent in November to its lowest level in four years. Imports, including Canadian crude oil, dropped 1.4 per cent.

And the Bank of Canada has turned dovish on interest rates with a hike not expected until next year.

Also, the U.S. dollar has strengthened on speculation about how fast the U.S. Federal Reserve might reduce its massive bond-buying program.

The Fed decided last month to start tapering its $85-billion of monthly bond purchases by $10-billion, with further cuts contingent on economic performance, particularly improvements in job creation.

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The minutes from that Fed meeting were released on Wednesday but failed to provide clues about what the Fed might do.

However, there is also a growing feeling that Friday's U.S. government employment report for December will exceed expectations that about 195,000 jobs were created. Payroll firm ADP said Wednesday that the U.S. private sector alone created 238,000 jobs in December.

Also on Thursday morning, the U.S. Labour Department reported that applications for jobless insurance fell by 15,000 last week to 330,000.

Canadian jobs data also come out Friday with expectations that about 13,000 jobs were created in December.

In other economic developments, the European Central Bank left its key interest rate unchanged at a record-low 0.25 per cent on Thursday amid worries about a weak recovery and low inflation.

Lower prices for oil and metals also pressured the Canadian currency.

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The February crude contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange lost 67 cents to close at $91.66 a barrel.

March copper lost 4 cents to $3.30 a pound while February gold bullion climbed $3.90 to $1,229.40 an ounce.

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