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Stocks close little changed as traders ponder next rate hike

CNBC logo CNBC 3/20/2017 Fred Imbert

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Stocks closed little changed Monday, with utilities lagging, as investors turned their eyes to comments from several Federal Reserve officials.

The Nasdaq composite hit an all-time high in midmorning trade before ending flat. Apple also reached a record high.

"We're still expensive and that's going to keep the market from drudging higher," said Jeremy Klein, a chief market strategist at FBN Securities. He also said investors were positioning themselves for the upcoming earnings season.

The Dow slipped 8 points, with Home Depot and Goldman Sachs contributing the most losses.

"I think a lot of people are just on hold and sort of waiting to go in either direction," said Robert Pavlik, a chief market strategist at Boston Private Wealth. "The market is just waiting for its next catalyst. There hasn't been one in the past few weeks."

The S&P 500 fell 0.2 percent, with utilities leading decliners.

"Investors want to know what the Fed has to say about the next rate hike," said Adam Sarhan, CEO of 50 Park Investments. "That's going to be the headline this week."

The U.S. central bank raised interest rates for the second time in three months last week, but the "dot plot" that shows each member's expectations for where rates will be in coming years changed little from the last meeting.

Chicago Fed President Charles Evans said the central bank will wait until June to decide on the next rate hike.

"June is a time where we will obviously have two meetings to assess how financial markets have evolved, everything happening in Washington and the likelihood of that, and the data evolving [including] whether or not prices are going up," he said.

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari spoke with CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Monday, saying he voted against a rate hike last week because he wanted to see more inflation in the U.S.

Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" that it's OK if inflation overshoots the Fed's inflation target as the labor market tightens.

"Obviously there's a lag to inflation. We have to be careful of not getting behind the curve," said Harker.

Treasurys traded mixed, with the short-term two-year note yield slipping to 1.30 percent and the benchmark 10-year note yield holding near 2.474 percent.

The postelection rise in equities and Treasury yields has largely slowed down recently as investors await for more details on the White House's tax reform, deregulation and government spending proposals.

"The market has had a pretty big run [in stocks] and a consolidation is possible here," said Bruce Bittles, chief investment strategist at Baird. "We'll likely move sideways here in the near term and after that we'll continue to go up again."

Investors also kept an eye on oil prices, as prices were pressured by rising inventories.

"Sure, there's a lot of supply, but what about demand? If demand is waning, that could be trouble for the market," said 50 Park's Sarhan.

U.S. crude futures for April delivery fell 1.15 percent to settle at $48.22 per barrel.

Wall Street also braced for a contentious House vote on the GOP health care bill slated for Thursday. The bill's passing is seen as a step toward enacting tax reform, but it has faced criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.

In the meantime, FBI Director James Comey testified in front of Congress on Monday about an investigation on the extent of Russian influence in the U.S. presidential election.

Overseas, European equities traded mostly lower after the G-20 failed to agree on a joint communication that supported free and open trade.

The pound slipped against the dollar after UK Prime Minister Theresa May's office announced the country will trigger Article 50 to exit the European Union on March 29.

"The country is divided and this is the biggest task that currently rests in her hands. Theresa May is going to start touring the UK in an attempt to bring the country together and create more support for Article 50," said Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at Think Markets, in a note.

CNBC's Jeff Cox and Reuters contributed to this report.


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