Stocks Little Changed as Investors Play It Safe Ahead of the Fed

By Michael Wursthorn and Marina Force Features Dow Jones Newswires

U.S. stocks edged higher Tuesday ahead of a coming Federal Reserve policy decision, putting major indexes on track for record closes.

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Stock trading has been relatively muted in recent sessions, as easing geopolitical concerns and steady global growth have given investors few reasons to unload stocks.

The subdued trading environment continued Tuesday, with the S&P 500 on track to notch its smallest intraday range since December 2013.

Some analysts said investors appeared to be holding off on making new bets ahead of the Fed's upcoming policy announcement. Many expect the central bank to announce Wednesday that it will keep rates unchanged and that it will start slowly unwinding its $4.5 trillion balance sheet.

"It's a really quiet market. People are in a wait-and-see mode ahead of the Fed meeting," said Bret Chesney, a senior portfolio manager at Alpine Global Management. "With the things I'm trading today, just nodding at the stock moves prices."

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 52 points, or 0.2%, to 22383 in recent trading. The S&P 500 added 0.1%, and the Nasdaq Composite rose 0.1%.

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The S&P 500 telecommunications sector climbed 1.9% on Tuesday, among the biggest gainers in the broad index, after CNBC reported that T-Mobile and Sprint were in active talks about a merger. Sprint rose 8.4%, while T-Mobile gained 5.2%.

Shares of health-care stocks lagged behind, with the S&P 500 health-care sector recently down 0.9%. Insurer Aetna and kidney-care company DaVita were recently down 3.6% and 2.4%, respectively.

Meanwhile, U.S. government bond yields were steady ahead of the Fed decision, with the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note recently at 2.232%, according to Tradeweb, from 2.230% Monday. Yields fall as bond prices rise.

Looking forward, investors hope to get more details on the Fed's rate-increase path. Many have been skeptical the Fed will raise rates again, citing subdued inflation readings and concerns around the economic toll of major summer storms.

"The data that has been coming out from the U.S. has been a bit of a mixed bag...so I think it is maybe time for the Fed to take a break," said Trip Miller, managing partner at Gullane Capital Partners, who doubts the central bank will increase rates again this year.

However, data last week showing a bigger-than-expected jump in U.S. consumer prices gave a fresh boost to investor expectations for one more rate rise in 2017.

Federal-funds futures, used by investors to place bets on the Fed's rate-policy outlook, showed Tuesday a 57% chance that the central bank will raise interest rates again by December, according to CME Group data, up from 41% a week ago.

"The recent growth in economic fundamentals have been very supportive of a rate hike" this year, said Anwiti Bahuguna, a senior portfolio manager at Columbia Threadneedle Investments. "But it's still a coin toss."

Any messaging from the Fed that departs from investors' expectations could shake up the markets, some traders and investors said.

"We could get some volatility tomorrow afternoon if the statement is considerably different from what we're expecting," said Thomas Wright, director of equities at JMP Securities.

Elsewhere, the Stoxx Europe 600 added less than 0.1%, posting its eighth advance in the past 10 trading sessions.

Markets in Asia closed mixed, with Japan's Nikkei Stock Average jumping 2% to its highest close since August 2015 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index falling 0.4%.

Write to Michael Wursthorn at Michael.Wursthorn@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 19, 2017 15:12 ET (19:12 GMT)