TORONTO -- North American stock markets were looking for direction Thursday as worries about growth in China weighed on investors' minds.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, the S&P/TSX composite index gained 24.74 points at 14,643.71, with the gold sector leading advancers as the December gold contract rose $3.80 to US$1,257.60 an ounce.

Bullion is usually seen as a safe haven to investors amid economic uncertainty.

Metals finished as the biggest decliner on the market, while December copper contracts fell five cents to US$2.12 a pound.

China, the world's second-largest economy, reported that exports fell 10 per cent in September versus a year ago.

The decline was a much bigger drop than in August, and greater than what analysts had been expecting.

Markets look to China as a pulse for global economic growth. Since the summer of 2015, stocks have periodically been roiled by worries that China's economy was weakening.

Ben Jang, a portfolio manager at Nicola Wealth Management, says investors are most concerned about whether these latest figures are indicative of a downward trend that is about to emerge.

"It's more about whether this is a continuing narrative of ... a global slowdown," said Jang in Vancouver.

The pressure weighed on Wall Street, as bank stocks fell amid investor fears that this data means banks will be more reluctant to lend money to consumers and businesses around the world.

Miners and other companies that make basic materials also declined because many of them rely heavily on exports to China.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average lost 45.26 points at 18,098.94, the broader S&P 500 composite index dipped 6.63 points to 2,132.55, and the Nasdaq composite faded 25.69 points to 5,213.33.

Amid these worries, Jang doesn't think negative readings from China will be enough to stop the U.S. Federal Reserve from making a move on interest rates as early as December.

"There is some politics involved," he said. "Part of the concern is the potential that a rate hike will create volatility in the marketplace and coincide with what's happening around the world."

What will perhaps play a larger factor is what kind of economic outlook third-quarter earnings results will show.

"Earnings growth needs to turn and that's where you'll find stabilization in the market," said Jang.

"It's been pretty weak. The markets are just kind of in a risk-off mode."

Meanwhile, the Canadian dollar added 0.31 of a cent to 75.73 cents US.

In other commodities, the November crude contract gained 26 cents at US$50.44 per barrel, while November natural gas soared 13 cents to US$3.34 per mmBTU.