A hint from Federal Reserve policymakers that interest rates may be heading higher sent stocks flitting between gains and losses Wednesday afternoon, but the major indexes ended up closing pretty much where they started.
ON WALL STREET: At the close, the Dow Jones industrial average had slipped 3.4 points, about less than 0.1 percent, to 17,526.62. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index was up less than a point at 2,047.63, and the Nasdaq composite gained 23.4 points, about 0.5 percent, to 4,739.1.
OIL PRICES: As markets closed, the price of benchmark U.S. crude oil was down 57 cents to $48.42 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In London, Brent crude, used to price international oils, lost 74 cents to $48.54 a barrel.
THE FED MINUTES: Stocks held onto gains through the first part of the day, but in the afternoon the Federal Reserve released minutes of its last meeting suggesting it was more open to raising rates than many had thought. Caught unaware, investors started dumping utilities and other high dividend payers that had been in favor for much of the year.
Utilities fell 1.9 percent, but banks rose because they can make more money on loans if rates go higher. JPMorgan Chase jumped 4 percent and Goldman Sachs climbed 3 percent.
ANALYSTS OPINE: “The Fed is clearly in the driver’s seat” of the stock market, said analyst Ernie Cecilia, chief investment officer of Bryn Mawr Trust. It’s impacting prices “more than any other kind of input out there.”
The minutes of the Fed’s last meeting showed a widely held view among policymakers that it “likely would be appropriate” to raise rates at its June meeting as long as the economy and labor markets continue to strengthen and inflation shows signs of accelerating.
Some investors are worried that a rise in rates will hurt a sluggish U.S. economy that grew just 0.5 percent in the first quarter. “There is little room for error,” said analyst Tom Cassidy, chief investment officer at Univest Wealth Management Division. “When you’re growing slowly, any hiccup could result in a recession.”