Wall Street Slumps as Fed Maintains Policy Stance

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The markets pulled back from five-year highs Wednesday after the Federal Reserve maintained its easy-money policy without offering any additional accommodation.

Today's Markets

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 44.2 points, or 0.32%, to 13910, the S&P 500 slipped 5.9 points, or 0.39%, to 1502 and the Nasdaq Composite dipped 11.4 points, or 0.36%, to 3142.

Over the past few weeks, the markets have quietly trudged higher, with the Dow coming within less than 2% of its all-time high, and just points away from the 14000 mark. So far, the blue-chip average is more than 6% for the year in its best annual kick off in nearly a quarter century. Volatility, as tracked by the CBOE's VIX, has ticked up slightly in recent days, but remains well below the 100-day moving average.

Wall Street's main focus Wednesday was on the U.S. economy.

The Federal Reserve said it will hold the pace of quantitative easing steady at $85 billion a month and hold interest rates at record lows until the unemployment rate falls below 6.5%, as expected. The central bank also says economic growth has "paused" recently as a result of weather and other "transitory" factors.

A first look at fourth-quarter gross domestic product from the Commerce Department showed the U.S. economy contracting at an annualized pace of 0.1%, compared to estimates of a 1.1% expansion. It was the first decline since the second quarter of 2009, when the economy was beginning to recover from the financial crisis. Commerce said the decline was mostly attributable to private inventory, federal government spending and the trade deficit.

The reaction on Wall Street was fairly muted, with some economists noting a series of one-time factors contributed to the sharp drop from the 3.1% growth rate in the third quarter.

"While vindicating the Fed's aggressive policy stance, the economic weakness late last year should not be a cause of renewed concern for policymakers," Chris Williamson, chief economist at market-data company Markit wrote in an email. "More up-to-date economic data have also indicated the recovery has regained traction as we move into 2013."

Meanwhile, the ADP National Employment Report showed the U.S. private sector added 192,000 jobs in January, topping estimates of 165,000. The data come ahead of the more closely-watched monthly jobs report from the Labor Department on Friday.

Recent data have pointed to continued gains for the embattled jobs market, but ones that have only been sufficient to slowly push the unemployment rate lower to 7.8% as of December after peaking at 10% during the financial crisis.

In corporate news, Boeing's (NYSE:BA) fourth-quarter earnings and outlook topped expectations, but revenues fell short. Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) missed on the top and bottom lines after the bell Tuesday, but traders remained bullish, sending the stock zipping higher.

In commodities, oil prices topped the $98 a barrel mark for the first time since September before pulling back slightly. The benchmark contract settled higher by 37 cents, or 0.38%, to $97.94 a barrel. Wholesale New York Harbor gasoline rallied 2.2% to $3.039 a gallon. In metals, gold climbed $18.90, or 1.1%, to $1,682 a troy ounce.

Foreign Markets 

The Euro Stoxx 50 dipped 0.62% to 2732, the English FTSE 100 fell 0.25% to 6323 and the German DAX slumped 0.47% to 7811.

In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 soared 2.3% to 11114 and the Chinese Hang Seng jumped 0.71% to 23822.