Stocks Slip As Wall Street Waits For Fed’s Latest Rate Hike

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NEW YORK — Stocks are drifting lower on Wall Street Wednesday ahead of the Federal Reserve’s latest decision on interest rates.

The S&P 500 was 0.3% lower in midday trading. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 244 points, or 0.7%, at 33,841, as of 11:30 a.m. Eastern time, while the Nasdaq composite was 0.2% lower.

The market is coming off a strong January, where stocks rose on hopes that cooling inflation could get the Federal Reserve to ease up on its barrage of hikes to interest rates that have rattled Wall Street.

Later Wednesday afternoon, the Fed is expected to announce its latest increase, one that would be the smallest since March at 0.25 percentage points. Perhaps more important than that will be what the Fed says about where rates are heading next.

Much of Wall Street is hoping the Fed may raise rates just one more time after Wednesday afternoon, before taking a pause and then possibly cutting rates toward the end of the year. Rate cuts can ease pressure on the economy and juice investment prices.

So far, though, the Fed has been adamant that it plans no rate cuts until 2024 at the earliest and wants to hold rates higher for longer to ensure it doesn’t allow inflation to fester and reignite.

Higher interest rates try to snuff out inflation by slowing the economy and dragging on prices for stocks and other investments. The Fed has already pulled its key overnight rate to its highest level since 2007, at a range of 4.25% to 4.50%, up from virtually zero early last year.

One area influencing expectations for the Fed is the job market, which has remained resilient despite all of last year’s rate hikes. While strength there helps workers, a worry is that it could lead to too-high gains in wages that give inflation more fuel.

Reports on Wednesday gave a mixed picture on hiring. Private payrolls rose by 106,000 in January, according to ADP. That’s a slowdown from growth of 253,000 a month earlier, and it was well below the 170,000 that economists expected.

But a separate report from the U.S. government indicated more strength. It said the number of job openings increased to 11 million in December, better than the slowdown to 10.3 million that economists expected. The more comprehensive report on the U.S. job market will arrive on Friday.

Adding to the mixed picture on the economy was a report from the Institute for Supply Management, which said U.S. manufacturing weakened by more than expected last month. It was the third straight month of contraction.

Treasury yields fell after the release of the ADP report, which may have raised expectations for an easier Fed, and then pared their losses following the other reports.

The two-year yield, which tends to track expectations for the Fed, was holding steady at 4.21%. The 10-year yield, which helps set rates for mortgages and other important loans, fell to 3.49% from 3.51% late Tuesday.

A lackluster earnings reporting season also continues on Wall Street, with more mixed profit reports arriving from big U.S. companies.

Electronic Arts tumbled 11.6% after it gave forecasts for upcoming results that fell short of Wall Street’s expectations. Analysts said some gamers may be getting more selective given the softening economy.

WestRock, a paper and packaging company, dropped 13.2% after it reported weaker earnings and revenue for the latest quarter than expected. It also axed its forecasts for this fiscal year, citing uncertainty about the economy.

On the winning side was Advanced Micro Devices, which rose 7.7% even though its profit tumbled 98% in the fourth quarter from a year earlier. Its results were better than analysts expected.

Facebook parent Meta reports after the bell Wednesday, followed by Alphabet, Amazon and Apple on Thursday, as well as Ford and Starbucks.

In overseas markets, European stocks were mixed.

Data on Wednesday showed that Europe’s inflation rate dipped at the start of the year, giving some relief to consumers. But prices remain elevated, prompting a number of protests, and will likely press the European Central Bank into another interest rate hike Thursday.

In Asia, stocks in Shanghai gained 0.9% after surveys showed Chinese factory activity increased in January but still is subdued amid weak global demand and COVID-19 outbreaks that disrupted business.

By STAN CHOE - Feb 1, 2023 - 11:36 AM ET



AP Business Writers Joe McDonald and Matt Ott contributed.


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