Wall Street struggled to make gains even as banks recorded a sharp rise in profit growth and a key economic report showed the US economy is improving.

Goldman Sachs' shares jumped 4.1 per cent to their highest level since May 2011, after its quarterly profit almost tripled as gains in its investments led it to the first year of revenue growth since 2009.

It made $US2.9 billion in the period, up from $US1 billion the same time a year earlier.

Chief executive Lloyd Blankfein instituted a $US1.9 billion expense-reduction program in mid-2011 and said he expected earnings growth to pick-up when the economy and markets improve.

JP Morgan Chase posted a 53 per cent rise in fourth-quarter profit, which beat analysts' estimates, as mortgage revenue more than doubled and the lender set aside less for future losses.

Offsetting gains in the banks were Boeing shares. They slumped almost 4 per cent on concerns about its new Dreamliner passenger jets after two Japanese airlines grounded their 787 fleets on safety concerns.

A key reading of the US economy, the Federal Reserve's Beige Book survey of the 12 Fed districts, showed economic activity picked up across much of the country last month, boosted by car and home sales.

By the close, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 24 points, or 0.2 per cent, to 13,511.

The broader S&P 500 index ended flat at 1,472.

The Nadsaq Composite index was up 0.2 per cent at 3,118.

Across the Atlantic, weak economic data from Europe raised concerns about the health of the global economy.

New car sales in the 17-nation bloc plunged in 2012 to their lowest level since 1995.

Mining stocks pulled London's market lower, with Anglo American among the biggest losers after worker protests at its platinum mines.

The FTSE 100 index closed 0.2 per cent weaker at 6,104.

The Euro Stoxx index was flat at 2,703.

At 8:15am (AEDT) in Australia futures markets were pointing to a flat start to trade.

The Australian dollar was holding its strength against the greenback, buying 105.69 US cents.

It was also worth 79.54 euro cents and 66.05 British pence.

Spot gold prices were at $US1,682 dollars an ounce.

West Texas intermediate crude oil edged higher to $US93.94 cents a barrel.