Stocks mostly fall as Fed meets on interest rates

Investors anxiously await news from Fed on interest rates

The guessing game over higher interest rates is making for a jerky stock market.

A day after their biggest gain in six weeks, U.S. stock indexes mostly fell on Tuesday as oil continued to slide and investors fretted over when the Federal Reserve will raise a key borrowing rate. Low rates have helped stocks soar over the past six years. The Fed kicked off a two-day meeting on Tuesday to discuss rates, and will release a policy statement on Wednesday.

Losses were small, but spread across industries. Nine of the 10 sectors of the Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped, led by a 1.2 percent fall in raw-material companies.

Randall Warren, chief investment officer of Warren Financial Service, said he's isn't worried about higher rates, but is bracing for more price swings nonetheless.

“The economy is stronger, and can handle it and people will realize that,” he said. “But now we're in the fear phase.”

The S&P 500 fell 6.99 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,074.20. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 128.34 points, or 0.7 percent, to 17,849.08. The Dow jumped 228 the day before.

The Nasdaq composite edged up 7.93 points, or 0.2 percent, to 4,937.43.

Energy stocks sank as the price of oil slid for the sixth straight day to another six-year low. U.S. benchmark crude fell 42 cents to close at $43.46 a barrel in New York.

In its statement released Wednesday, the Fed is widely expected to drop the word “patient” in describing how long it will wait to raise rates. Many economists think that will signal that the Fed will make its first move in June.

Others aren't so sure, with some predicting the central bank will wait until next year.

Mixed signals on the economy have been adding to the uncertainty.

U.S. employers have added more than 200,000 jobs in each of the past 12 months, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.5 percent. That is the lowest rate in seven years.

On the down side, a report on Monday showed output at the nation's factories fell for a third straight month in February.

“We keep getting good economic information, then bad economic information,” said Aaron Jett, an equity strategist at Bel-Air Investment Advisors. “There's no conviction about what the Fed will do.”

On Tuesday, the Commerce Department said construction of new homes plummeted 17 percent in February from the month before, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 897,000. Bad winter weather in Northeast and Midwest was mostly to blame.

Homebuilder stocks dropped on the news. Hovnanian Enterprises fell 8 cents, or 2.4 percent, to $3.27.

Other stocks in the news:

— Apple rose $2.09, or 1.7 percent, to $127.04 on a report in the Wall Street Journal that the iPhone maker is in talks with programmers to include TV networks in an online television service.

— Weight Watchers sank 20 cents, or 2 percent, to $9.93 after Credit Suisse downgraded its rating on the stock. The bank said the company faces tough competition from free and lower-cost weight loss alternatives.

— American Airlines jumped $3.47, or nearly 7 percent, to $53.69 after news that the carrier will join the S&P 500 index after the close of trading Friday.

The euro strengthened to $1.0603 from $1.0578. The dollar was unchanged at 121.37 yen.

In oil markets, Brent crude for May delivery, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 43 cents to close at $53.51 in London. The Brent contract for April delivery expired Monday at $53.44 a barrel.

In other futures trading on the NYMEX:

— Wholesale gasoline rose 0.1 cent to close at $1.730 a gallon.

— Heating oil fell 0.5 cent to close at $1.694 a gallon.

— Natural gas rose 13.9 cents to close at $2.855 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Precious and industrial metals futures fell. Gold lost $5 to $1,148.20 an ounce, silver fell four cents to $15.58 an ounce and copper fell three cents to $2.63 a pound.

U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.05 percent from 2.08 percent on Monday.

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