The Fed buys $85 billion in bonds every month as part of a campaign to keep interest rates extremely low. The aim is to encourage borrowing, spending and investing. Some investors worry that long-term interest rates could spike when the Fed pulls back, raising borrowing costs and threatening the economic recovery. Higher yields for government bonds have already started pushing mortgage rates up.
Policymakers at the Fed will start a two-day meeting Tuesday to discuss the central bank's next steps. After the meeting wraps up, the bank will release its policy statement and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will hold another press conference.
Scott King, senior fiduciary investment adviser at Unified Trust in Lexington, Ky., said that investors in recent weeks have been influenced more by wondering about what the Fed might do than by the underlying economy.
"You have a number of Fed governors saying the opposite to what Bernanke is saying," King said. "And that's made the markets more jittery."King said investors were disappointed Friday by the drop in consumer confidence. He described the economy as "plodding along." "Wage growth continues to be pretty meager, and unemployment continues to be lackluster," King said. Banks led nine of the 10 industry groups in the S&P 500 lower. Utilities made slight gains. Investors tend to favor these safety plays when they want stable companies that pay steady dividends. The S&P 500 hit a record high of 1,669 on May 21. The next day, Fed officials said they would consider pulling back on their stimulus program once the economy looks healthy enough. The S&P 500 has lost 2 percent since. In other Friday trading, the Nasdaq composite index lost 21.81 points, or 0.6 percent, to 3,423.56. The price of oil rose $1.16 to close at $97.85 a barrel, near its highest level of the year, as traders reacted to news that the U.S. would provide weapons to rebel forces in Syria.