Stocks tread water as next fiscal showdown looms

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— Stock indexes turned lower Thursday afternoon after the Federal Reserve said its policymakers are split over how long to continue a bond-purchasing program intended to stimulate the economy.

The Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 index treaded water for much of the day, then dipped into the red after 2 p.m. Eastern, when the Fed released minutes from its December policy meeting.

As of 2:33 p.m. the Dow was off 27 points at 13,396. The Dow is coming off its biggest gain in more than a year and is still up 450 points this week.

The S&P 500 was down three points at 1,459 and the Nasdaq composite fell eight to 3,104.

At last month’s meeting of the Federal Reserve’s policymaking committee, the central bank said it would buy $85 billion of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed bonds on an open-ended basis, and also keep a benchmark interest rate near zero until the unemployment rates drops below 6.5 percent. The unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in November. The government reports the rate for December on Friday.

On Thursday, the Fed revealed a split among its members over how long to continue the bond purchases. Some of its 12 voting members thought they would continue through this year, while others thought they should be slowed or stopped before the end of 2013. Those governors were concerned that the continued bond purchases would destabilize the economy.

Prices of U.S. government bonds fell, sending their yields higher, after the minutes of the Fed’s meeting were released. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 1.90 percent from 1.84 percent late Wednesday. That means investors are anticipating the Fed will slow its purchases of bonds.

The stock market opened on a weak note after retailers reported mixed holiday sales and as the prospect of a new budget battle in Congress loomed. UnitedHealth Group led the Dow lower. The stock fell $1.65 to $52.88 after analysts at Deutsche Bank and other firms cut their ratings on the stock.

“It’s natural to relax a bit after such a huge day as yesterday,” said Lawrence Creatura, who manages a small-company fund at Federated Investors.

The Dow soared 308 points Wednesday, its largest point gain since December 2011. The rally was ignited after lawmakers passed a bill to avoid a combination of government spending cuts and tax increases called the “fiscal cliff.”

That deal gave the market a jump start into the new year. The Dow and the S&P 500 are already up more than 2 percent.

“We’re off to a very strong start,” Creatura said. “The dominant reason is the resolution of the fiscal cliff. But January is usually a strong month, as investors all shift money into the market at the same time. When the calendar flips, it’s as if you’re allowed to begin the race anew.”

Economists had warned that the full force of the fiscal cliff could drag the country into a recession. The law passed late Tuesday night averted that outcome for now, but other fiscal squabbles are likely in the months ahead. Congress must raise the government’s borrowing limit soon or be forced to choose between slashing spending or paying its debts.

Ross Stores surged 6 percent in early trading. The retailer said sales at stores open at least a year increased 11 percent during the holiday shopping season. Ross Stores rose $3.65 to $58.09.

Nordstom Inc. surged 2 percent after the department-store chain also reported strong holiday sales, especially in the South and Midwest. Nordstrom’s stock was up $1.21 to $54.84.

Other retailers struggled during the holidays as shoppers held out for deep discounts.

Family Dollar Stores sank 12 percent after reporting earnings that fell short of analysts’ projections. The company also forecast a weaker outlook for the current period and full year. Family Dollar’s stock lost $7.25 to $56.75.

Among other stocks making big moves:

— Transocean jumped $3.33, or 7 percent, to $49.57. The owner of the oil rig that sank in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 after an explosion killed 11 workers reached a $1.4 billion settlement with the Justice Department.

— Hormel Foods, known for making Spam and other meat products, said that it’s buying Skippy, the country’s No. 2 peanut butter brand, from Unilever for about $700 million. Hormel’s stock jumped 5 percent, or $1.56, to $33.60.

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