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Stocks end the day lower after brief rally set off by Fed's decision to halt interest rate hikes

Stocks end the day lower after brief rally set off by Fed's decision to halt interest rate hikes
Specialists James Denaro, left, and Mario Picone work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on March 12. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Banks led U.S. stocks mostly lower Wednesday after a brief rally sparked by the Federal Reserve's latest policy update faded.

The real action, though, centered in the bond market after the central bank said it has ruled out interest rate increases this year and issued a dimmer outlook on the U.S. economy.

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That triggered one of the biggest slides for Treasury yields in months, knocking the 10-year Treasury yield as low as 2.53%, down from 2.61% late Tuesday and from 3.20% late last year. The two-year Treasury yield, which is more influenced by Fed movements, fell to 2.39% from 2.45% late Tuesday.

Investors see Treasuries as a haven and bid up prices when they see trouble ahead, which causes the yield to fall. Yields have been falling steadily since November as worries rose about a slowing global economy. A halt in interest rate increases also makes existing bonds more attractive.

The Fed's decision not to raise rates in 2019 is a marked change from three months ago, when the central bank projected two rate hikes in 2019. The move comes as Fed officials project that the U.S. economy will grow more slowly this year and in 2020, a change from the panel's projections just three months ago.

The central bank also said it will stop shrinking its bond portfolio in September, a step that would help hold down long-term interest rates.

The Fed's announcement was clearly positive for the market, said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial.

“Powell's suggestion that the Fed is on hold this year is important,” she said. “The question for the market remains whether or not the four rate hikes from last year and the unwinding of the balance sheet at the same time could be continuing, even now, to tighten financial conditions.”

The S&P 500 dropped 8.34 points, or 0.3%, to 2,824.23. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 141.71 points, or 0.5%, to 25,745.67. The average had been down more than 216 points earlier.

The Nasdaq composite eked out a slight gain, adding 5.02 points, or 0.1%, to 7,728.97. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks gave up 11.83 points, or 0.8%, to 1,543.16.

Major European indexes finished lower.

It was only last autumn that interest rates were on the rise and rattling investors, who worried that an overly aggressive Fed would keep raising rates and choke off growth in the face of a slowing global economy. The Fed increased rates seven times over the last two years.

Besides encouraging more borrowing and economic growth, lower interest rates can make stocks look more attractive to investors, at least when compared with the lower amount of interest that bonds are paying.

On the losing end, though, are U.S. banks, whose profits can take a hit if the gap between short- and long-term interest rates narrows. Financial stocks in the S&P 500 fell 2.1% for the largest loss among the 11 sectors that make up the index. Bank of America lost 3.4%.

Developments in the trade talks between the U.S. and China helped pull the market lower earlier in the day.

Administration officials are set to visit China for more negotiations late next week. Trump said the talks are “coming along nicely.” But the president also said that if negotiations result in an agreement, tariffs could stay in place for some time to ensure Beijing “lives by the deal.”

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Wall Street is hoping for a resolution to the damaging trade war between the world's largest economies, which has made goods more costly for companies and consumers.

Despite Wednesday's downbeat finish, the market is still off to a roaring start this year. The S&P 500 index is up 12.7% so far in 2019. That's better than the full-year gains for the benchmark index in four of the last five years.

News of tighter supplies of oil and continued production cuts helped to briefly push the price of benchmark U.S. crude oil above $60 a barrel. It hadn't closed above that price since November. It fell back slightly in afternoon trading, finishing with a gain of 1.4% to $59.83 a barrel.

The rise came after the U.S. government reported that supplies of oil fell 9.6% last week and news that OPEC plans to maintain deep production cuts.

The price of oil has been increasing sharply since Christmas Eve, when it hit a low of just over $42 a barrel. That followed a 44% plunge since Oct. 3, when it hit a high of just over $76 a barrel.

Brent crude rose 1.3% to $68.50 a barrel. Wholesale gasoline added 1.2% to $1.92 a gallon, heating oil rose 0.9% to $2.01 a gallon and natural gas fell 1.9% to $2.82 per 1,000 cubic feet.

The dollar fell to 110.61 yen from 111.41 Japanese yen Tuesday. The euro strengthened to $1.1446 from $1.1352.

Gold dropped 0.4% to $1,301.70 an ounce, silver lost 0.4% to $15.32 an ounce and copper gave up 0.1% to $2.92 a pound.

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