U.S. stocks closed little changed Thursday, holding solid gains for the week so far, as investors eyed some corporate news and sought further indications of support for a December rate hike from data and Fed speakers. (Tweet This)
"I think, or at least I hope, the market responded positively to the minutes indicating while (the Fed policymakers) want to keep their options open, a rate hike looks more and more like December," said Ryan Larson, head of equity trading, U.S., at RBC Global Asset Management (U.S.). "The market should not be so much about the first hike but about the trajectory of future hikes."
He expected modest stock moves during Thursday's session due to the lack of major economic reports.
The major averages ended mildly lower after fluctuating between slight gains and losses throughout the day. The key indexes are on track for gains of more than 2.5 percent for the week.
"The fact that we're hanging in is not a bad sign. I think people are trying to get a fix on where we're going fundamentally (in the economy)," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank.
UnitedHealth closed down 5.65 percent as the greatest weight on the Dow Jones industrial average. The health insurer cut its forecast for the year, mentioning lower-than-expected activity at the health care exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act.
Pfizer and Allergan closed about 3 percent lower to also weigh on the health care sector, following reports the two firms could be close to a deal. Pfizer's potential acquisition of Ireland-based Allergan would come as the U.S. Treasury said it will attempt greater restriction on overseas tax-inversion deals.
"The market is just going to be volatile trading on bits and pieces of news that come out until we get to November retail sales and the November employment report," said Chuck Self, CIO of iSectors. In contrast with most analysts, he does not expect the Federal Reserve to raise rates until March at the earliest.
Health care closed down 1.6 percent as the greatest laggard in the S&P 500, while utilities gained about 1 percent to lead advancers. Energy was the second-worst performer, off nearly 1.3 percent.
Crude oil settled down 21 cents, or 0.52 percent, at $40.54 a barrel. Brent held steady near $44.20 a barrel.
The Dow transports closed up nearly 1 percent.
On Wednesday, U.S. stocks closed higher by nearly 1.5 percent or more after the Federal Reserve's October meeting minutes showed most members of the Federal Open Market Committee thought a December hike would be appropriate.
"One of the things that's been missing in the market has been confidence in the Fed and the Fed delivered the message the market needed to hear (yesterday in the minutes)," said Mike Baele, managing director, The Private Client Reserve, U.S. Bank.
Federal Reserve speakers Thursday continued to emphasize a gradual pace of tightening.
Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said he is "comfortable with moving off zero soon." He told reporters after the speech the Fed may need to change its criteria for progress on inflation after it starts raising rates.
Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer is scheduled to discuss emerging Asia at the San Francisco Fed at 4:45 p.m. ET.
On the data front, initial jobless claims came in at 271,000. The Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing survey's diffusion index for current activity came in for November at 1.9, its first positive reading in three months.
U.S. October leading indicators rose 0.6 percent, slightly more than expected.
"It's not the best of economic environments, but it's not getting worse and that's good news,' McCain said.
The 10-year Treasury note yield edged lower to near 2.24 percent, while the 2-year yield was up slightly at 0.89 percent.
The U.S. dollar held more than half a percent lower against major world currencies, with the euro at $1.073 and the yen at 122.86 yen against the dollar.
Overnight, the Bank of Japan kept monetary policy unchanged. The People's Bank of China said it will . The European Central Bank meeting minutes showed the central bank considered adding more stimulus.
"Our market internal measures support near-term upside follow-through, particularly given the positive seasonal influences that are upon us," BTIG Chief Technical Strategist Katie Stockton said in a morning note. "Up-volume overwhelmed down-volume by more than 9-to-1 yesterday after a collection of contrarian extremes were registered last Friday."
Traders also eyed Square and Match, which began trading Thursday.
"There's consternation in the market that demand for these large tech IPOs may not be as strong as hoped for," Self said.
Investors also watched geopolitical developments following the Paris terror attacks that killed more than 100 people.
A French prosecutor confirmed Thursday that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected Belgian mastermind behind the attacks, was among the dead identified in Wednesday's raid by French forces in the northern Paris district of Saint-Denis.
"I think people will have a third eye on terrorist-related events around the world," Larson said.
In other earnings news, Best Buy beat estimates by six cents, but revenue was merely in line and the 0.8 percent increase in same-store sales was only half analyst expectations. The stock closed down 2.1 percent.
The closed down 2.34 points, or 0.11 percent, at 2,081.24, with utilities leading seven sectors higher and health care the greatest laggard.
The Nasdaq closed down 1.56 points, or 0.03 percent, to 5,073.64.
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, held near 17.
Advancers were a touch ahead of decliners on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 820 million and a composite volume of nearly 3.6 billion.
Gold settled up $9.20 at $1,077.90 an ounce.
— CNBC's Peter Schacknow contributed to this report.
On tap this week:
Earnings: Autodesk, Gap, Intuit, Ross Stores, Splunk, Ulta Salon, Williams-Sonoma, Workday
4:45 p.m.: Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer on emerging Asia
Earnings: Abercrombie and Fitch, Foot Locker
9 a.m.: St. Louis Fed President James Bullard on economy and monetary policy
1 p.m.: San Francisco Fed President John Williams on monetary policy
*Planner subject to change.
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