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Volatility Rules as Stocks Fluctuate on Fed Fears

NEW YORK (TheStreet) --Market volatility was back in full force Thursday, as stocks seesawed throughout the afternoon before closing slightly in the red.

Equities have been unpredictable since an unexpected slide in durable goods orders on Wednesday provided investors with another sign the U.S. economy could be on weaker footing.

The S&P 500 fell 0.24% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 0.23%. The Nasdaq slid 0.27%.

Must Read: Warren Buffett's Top 10 Dividend-Paying Stocks for 2015

"This year we're going to see more volatility than we've seen in the last three or four years," said Luis Gonzalez, managing director of Snowden Lane Partners, on a call. "You're going to see some big swings through the course of the year."

Geopolitical pressure in Yemen contributed to stock market jitters, but also helped to push crude prices higher. West Texas Intermediate surged 4.4% to $51.37 a barrel on news Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies had bombed Yemeni militias as the country faces civil war.

The possible blocking of the Bab el-Mandab Strait was seen as a potential disruption to crude production and transport in the region, alleviating pressure on global oversupply. However, one analyst sees this as an unlikely result.

"We should note that blocking the strait would likely only extend the transit time as tankers are routed around Africa, as opposed to choking off supply," said Citi's commodity analyst Timothy Evans. "The base case scenario by a comfortable margin will be ongoing production with the market calming over time as it becomes clear that the conflict will be contained within Yemen's borders."

Markets have been shaky this week as investors perceive the Federal Reserve is determined to begin to normalize monetary policy sooner than later, regardless of poor economic data that points to a U.S. slowdown.

"The data looks poor and durable goods strikes as a deeper theme than just weather and strikes," said CRT Capital's David Ader. "We 'get' the Fed wants to hike at least once, but between that and earnings we're wary of stocks."

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard struck a hawkwish tone on Thursday. "Now may be a good time to begin normalizing U.S. monetary policy so that it is set appropriately for an impoving economy over the next two years," he said, addressing an audience in Frankfurt, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart was only slightly more dovish, recognizing that the first quarter looked "very soft." Speaking with CNBC, Lockhart said he expected a rate hike midyear or later as a harsh winter and the effect of lower oil prices appeared "transitory."

Red Hat (RHT - Get Report) shares were the best performer on the S&P 500, spiking 10.1% after the company reported quarterly profit of 43 cents a share, 2 cents higher than analysts' estimates. The company said it is seeing increased demand for its cloud products.

The worst performer on both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq was SanDisk (SNDK - Get Report) which tanked 18.5% after lowering its first-quarter revenue guidance. The company expects sales over its March-ending quarter of $1.3 billion, down from $1.45 billion previously.

Lululemon (LULU) added 5.2% after beating earnings estimates by 5 cents in its most recent quarter. However, guidance was lowered with the leisurewear retailer expecting earnings of 31 cents to 33 cents a share over its next quarter, below estimates of 39 cents.

American Express (AXP) was the worst performer on the Dow after tumbling 2%. Investors continue to flee the credit-card company after Costco (COST) annexed their partnership earlier this year. 

BlackBerry (BBRY) will report before market open Friday. Analysts expect cost-cutting initiatives to see progress with net losses halved to 4 cents a share from 8 cents a share a year earlier, though sales are expected to fall nearly 20%.

Must Read: 10 Stocks Carl Icahn Loves for 2015: Apple, eBay, Hertz and More

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