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Stocks close mixed after Fed minutes; real estate, utilities lead

U.S. stocks steadied Wednesday, closing narrowly mixed after the Federal Reserve's September meeting minutes affirmed previous expectations for a possible December rate hike.

"We remain where we were: a market still betting Chair Yellen wants a hike in December," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial. "Mark your calendar for December 13 to 14 to see if Yellen sticks to the message she's been telegraphing since Jackson Hole."

Fed officials in favor of hiking interest rates worried that waiting too long could send the country into recession, the minutes showed.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange
Andrew Renneisen | Getty Images
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

Three Fed policymakers dissented at the Federal Open Market Committee's September meeting. Those who agreed with the decision then to keep rates unchanged said in the minutes that it was "appropriate to await further evidence of continued progress toward the Committee's statutory objectives."

"I think it was fairly neutral, although it's telling me there's very active debate about whether or not to raise," said Eric Stein, co-director of global income at Eaton Vance. "To me, it's a lot about who Yellen is following. Last year, it seemed Yellen was following [Fed Vice Chairman Stanley] Fischer; this year, it seems like it's [Fed Governor Lael] Brainard."

Stocks fell sharply on Tuesday, with the three major U.S. indexes dropping more than 1 percent.

On Wednesday, stocks struggled for direction before ending little changed. The S&P 500 closed less than 3 points higher, with real estate up nearly 1.4 percent and utilities up 1 percent as the top advancers. Financials held slight gains of about 0.15 percent.

Kim Forrest, senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital, said the move in financial stocks "could be that people are repositioning ahead of Friday's bank earnings." Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup are all slated to post quarterly results Friday before the bell.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed off session highs, with Travelers Cos., Apple and McDonald's contributing the most to gains. The iPhone maker's stock posted its first seven-day win streak since the one ended in February 2015.

The Nasdaq composite closed a touch lower, weighed by declines in Cisco and Biogen.

Ahead of the minutes' release on Wednesday, New York Fed President William Dudley characterized U.S. inflation expectations as "well-anchored." Dudley also said if the Fed were to redo its quantitative easing, or asset purchase program, that "we would have gotten to a more aggressive posture sooner than we did."

The market is largely anticipating the Fed to raise interest rates later this year, with fed funds futures pricing in a more than 65 percent probability for a hike in December, but just 20 percent for November, according to RBS.

Bond yields around the world rose on Wednesday, with the benchmark U.S. 10-year note yield near 1.78 percent after the Fed minutes release. The 10-year German bund yield rose to 0.068 percent, while Spain's 10-year yield hit its highest level since July 25.

The Treasury Department sold $24 billion in three-year notes, an auction which saw the highest yield since January. The department also sold $20 billion in 10-year notes in an auction which saw weak demand.

Earlier, both the 10-year yield and 2-year yield hit their highest levels since June 3 of 1.801 percent and 0.891 percent, respectively, according to Reuters.

"I think it's all about rates and discounting the coming rate hike" from the Fed, said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at First Standard Financial. "I think yesterday's debacle was mostly due to yields moving to a new, higher trend. I think that spooked the market a little bit."

US 10-year yield in 2016Source: FactSet

In oil markets, U.S. crude settled 1.2 percent lower at $50.18 a barrel, while traders weighed talks between OPEC and other oil-exporting nations on curbing output.

Investors also kept an eye on quarterly corporate reports, as earnings season kicked off Tuesday with Alcoa posting weaker-than-expected results.

Maris Ogg, president at Tower Bridge Advisors, said the weak start to the season is adding more skittishness to the market. "Couple that with high valuations, I think it's no surprise to see buyers waiting until they see the numbers," she said. Ultimately, "I think earnings will be fine and this will dissipate."

Railroad giant CSX is expected to report quarterly results Wednesday after the bell.

In economic news, mortgage applications fell 6 percent last week as rising rates weighed. The August job openings and labor turnover survey, also released Wednesday, showed the number of job opening falling to 5.4 million.

Overseas, European markets were mostly lower, with the pan-European Stoxx 600 index falling 0.47 percent as sentiment was dented by the U.S. session's poor performance Tuesday.

In afternoon ET, Reuters reported the European Central Bank may discuss technical changes to its quantitative easing program next week, but may wait until December to decide whether it will extend the program beyond next March.

"We've seen this movie play before. Whenever we see the markets in trouble, central banks come in and try to influence investors," said Adam Sarhan, CEO at Sarhan Capital. " Clearly, they're doing their very best to keep equity markets higher."

In currency markets, the U.S. dollar index traded slightly higher, extending the week's gains. The euro was near $1.102 and the yen around 104.23 versus the greenback.

The British pound steadied after a sharp decline Tuesday to trade about 0.75 higher near $1.2214.

Symbol
Name
Price
 
Change
%Change
DJIA
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S&P 500
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NASDAQ
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The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 15.54 points, or 0.09 percent, at 18,144.20, with Nike the top advancer and Cisco the greatest laggard.

The S&P 500 closed up 2.44 points, or 0.11 percent, at 2,139.17, with real estate leading eight sectors higher and health care the greatest decliner.

The Nasdaq composite closed down 7.77 points, or 0.15 percent, at 5,239.02.

Advancers were a touch ahead of decliners on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 680 million and a composite volume of nearly 2.9 billion in the close.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, edged above 15.5.

Gold futures for December delivery fell $2.10 to settle at $1,253.80 per ounce.

—CNBC's Jeff Cox contributed to this report.

On tap this week:

Wednesday

Earnings: CSX

Thursday

Earnings: Taiwan Semiconductor, Unilever, First Republic Bank, Sky, Marriott Vacations, Winnebago

8:30 a.m.: Jobless claims

8:30 a.m.: Import prices

12:15 p.m.: Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker speaks on the economic outlook

2 p.m.: Federal budget

9 p.m.: Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari speaks at a town hall on "Ending too big to fail," the role of the Federal Reserve and other topics

Friday

Earnings: Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, PNC Financial Services, Infosys, Commerce Bancshares

8:30 a.m.: Retail sales

8:30 a.m.: PPI

10 a.m.: Consumer sentiment

10 a.m.: Business inventories

1:30 p.m.: Fed Chair Janet Yellen speaks on "Macroeconomic research after the crisis"

9 p.m.: Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari speaks at a town hall on "Ending too big to fail," the role of the Federal Reserve and other topics

*Planner subject to change. All times Eastern.