Stocks Gain; Energy Rises, Utilities Fall

Stocks traded slightly higher, led by energy and materials stocks, ahead of the release of the Federal Reserve's policy meeting minutes this afternoon.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained more than 20 points after falling on Thursdayamid weak earnings and evidence of a slowing U.S. economy.

Hewlett-Packard led Dow laggards for a second day after releasing disappointing earnings results on Tuesday, and receiving a downgrade from JPMorgan to "neutral" from "overweight." The brokerage also cut the personal computer maker's price target to $42 a share from $55, saying HP's revised outlook for the fiscal third quarter and the full year is a "major disappointment."

TheS&P 500 and the Nasdaq also gained slightly. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell below 18.

Among key S&P 500 sectors, energy and materials gained, while utilities and consumerstaples fell, in a reversal of a trend seen over the last couple sessions.

The market was just "churning" Wednesday as traders awaited minutes of the Federal Reserve's policy setting meeting held last month, as well as several economic reports, including existing home sales and jobless claims, set for release on Thursday, said Kenneth Polcari, managing director at ICAP Equities.

The economic news of late hasn't been encouraging, and one issue on trader's minds is whether the Fed's statement will reflect concern over a slowdown in the economy, Polcari said.

"People are waiting to see whether they are even more accommodative at all," he said. But, he doesn't expect the minutes to reveal anything new. "I don’t think we’ll get anything today that will give a direction for the market," Polcari said.

Oil prices rebounded after the Energy Information Administration reported oil inventory stocks, either fell or rose less than expected. The government said crude oil inventories fell by 15,000 barrels, while gasoline rose by 119,000 barrels.

U.S. light, sweet crude rose about 2 percent to just under $99 a barrel, while in London, Brentcrude gained more than 1 percent to just over $111.

The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies.

The news in personal computer stocks wasn't all gloomy, as Dell gained after reporting better-than-forecast results after the bell Tuesday.

Elsewhere in earnings news, Deere beat earnings estimatesthanks to strong demand for farm equipment and a weak dollar. BJ'sbeat expectations as more consumers turned to the wholesaler for food and gasoline, while Abercrombie & Fitch also beat earnings expectations. Target , meanwhile, traded flat after beating earnings estimates, but falling short on sales.

And SodaStream soared after delivering raising its outlook for the year, and reporting strong U.S. sales.

But Staples plunged after reporting disappointing same store sales and a weaker-than-expected profit in the first quarter.

Among other tech stocks on Wednesday, Research in Motion gained after Sanford C. Bernstein upgraded the Blackberry maker to "market perform" from "underperform," saying the stock is cheap, and is unlikely to deteriorate further despite the fact the company's management "remains in denial of challenges facing the company."

And shares of Hershey fell after news CEO David West will become CEO of Del Monte Foods, which was taken private by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts earlier this year. West's departure comes less than four years since he became Hershey's CEO.

On the economic front, falling mortgage rates boosted home loan refinancing last week. The Mortgage Bankers Association's seasonally adjusted index of mortgage application activity rose 7.8 percent in the week ended May 13, boosted by a 13.2 gain in refinancings. Home loan applications fell 3.2 percent.

The release of the Fed minutes of its April 26-27 meeting is at 2 p.m.

European stocks closed higher, boosted by Dell's results.

On Tap This Week:

WEDNESDAY: FOMC minutes, Fed's Bullard speaks; earnings after-the-bell from Limited Brands.
THURSDAY: Weekly jobless claims, existing home sales, Philadelphia Fed survey, leading indicators, money supply, Halliburton shareholder meeting, Intel shareholder meeting, McDonald's shareholder meeting, Sallie Mae annual meeting, LinkedIn IPO; earnings from GameStop and Sears before-the-bell and Gap after-the-bell.
FRIDAY: JCPenney shareholder meeting, Macy's shareholder meeting, Time Warner shareholder meeting; earnings from Ann Taylor before-the-bell.

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