US stocks fall at opening a day after big jump as investors await clues from Fed on rate hike

Energy Associated Press

U.S. stock indexes fell shortly after the opening of trading Tuesday as oil prices continue to slump and investors wait for clues about when the Federal Reserve might raise interest rates. The Fed will make a statement after a two-day policy meeting ends tomorrow. European stocks fell, but Asian markets gained.

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KEEPING SCORE: The Standard and Poor's 500 index fell 11 points, or 0.5 percent, 2,070 as of 10:14 a.m. Eastern time. The Dow Jones industrial average shed 156 points, or 0.9 percent, to 17,820. The Nasdaq composite edged lower nine points, or 0.2 percent, to 4,920.

FED WATCH: Investors are anxious to see if the Fed will drop the word "patient" in describing its timetable for raising interest rates from the record low level it has held them since 2008. Most economists expect the word to be removed from the statement issued Wednesday. Stock markets have been boosted for several years by low interest rates.

When the Fed will raise rates is a different question. Estimates are swinging between midyear and later in the year. Weak U.S. economic data Monday pushed expectations toward later in the year. Last week, strong U.S. jobs had many picking midyear.

BUILDER BLUES: Construction of new homes plummeted in February, as fierce winter weather froze housing starts in the Northeast and Midwest. The Commerce Department said that builders began construction at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 897,000 homes in February, a steep 17 percent plunge from January. Homebuilder stocks dropped, led by a 2.1 percent decline in Hovnanian Enterprises. The stock fell 7 cents to $3.28.

ENERGY: Oil continued to slide after hitting a six-year low on Monday as supplies outpace demand. Benchmark U.S. crude was down 77 cents to $43.11 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

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SLIMMING DOWN: Weight Watchers sank 63 cents, or 6 percent, to $9.50 after Credit Suisse downgraded its rating on the stock. The bank said the company faces tough competition from free and low-cost weight loss applications.

EUROPE'S DAY: Britain's FTSE 100 was flat while Germany's DAX fell 1.6 percent. France's CAC 40 fell 1 percent.

CHINA CHEER: Chinese stocks extended gains a day after a key stock index surged to its highest level in more than five years. The rally was driven by hopes the government will announce new economic stimulus after Premier Li Keqiang said on the weekend it has plenty of options for boosting growth. China's economy, the world's second-largest, expanded at its slowest pace in nearly a quarter-century last year.

THE QUOTE: "The biggest source of uncertainty at the moment is what will happen with the U.S. and rates liftoff, given the country is faced with a different set of fundamentals to the rest of the world," IG strategist Stan Shamu said in a commentary.

ASIA'S DAY: Japan's Nikkei 225 rose 1 percent and South Korea's Kospi jumped 2.1 percent. Hong Kong's Hang Seng was down 0.2 percent and China's Shanghai Composite added 1.6 percent. Stocks in Australia and Southeast Asia were also higher.

CURRENCIES: The euro strengthened to $1.0635 from $1.0578. The dollar inched down to 121.28 yen from 121.37 yen.

BONDS: U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.06 percent.