Stocks Fluctuate Ahead of Fed Meeting

Updated from 10:29 a.m. EDT

Stocks on Wall Street were fluctuating Wednesday, as traders combed through a bevy of corporate earnings and awaited an expected cut in the Federal Reserve's key target interest rate.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was lately just about flat at 9066, and the S&P 500 gave back 3.6 points to 936. The Nasdaq dropped 6 points to 1643.

During Wednesday's session, investors were eyeing the Fed's next move regarding interest rates. Policymakers began a two-day meeting Tuesday, and around 2:15 p.m. EDT the market will know definitively if rates have been reduced again. Observers widely expect the central bank to cut the fed funds target rate 50 basis points to 1% to provide additional liquidity to dysfunctional lending markets.

"If they cut, it's for psychological reasons," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank. Harris said the incremental benefit from a rate cut would not be very great, and he'd prefer a rate cut by the European Central Bank. "In my view, this commercial-paper program that the Treasury initiated yesterday will do way more to fuel borrowing and lending than a lower fed funds rate."

"The real story regarding the Federal Reserve is its various liquidity operations; the federal funds rate is second fiddle," wrote Tony Crescenzi, chief bond market strategist at Miller Tabak, on his RealMoney.com blog. He said that household and business debts are tied to the prime rate, which in turn is pegged to the target fed funds rate. As such, a reduction in the target rate would still have an impact, he wrote.

Crescenzi also wrote that the Fed's statement accompanying its decision will be important as well. He said that the Fed should acknowledge more forcefully the current deflationary environment.

Corporate earnings were also occupying investors' attention. Electronics manufacturer Sony ( SNE) reported a 72% decline in its quarterly profit due in part to recent sharp appreciation of the yen.

In the telecommunications space, cable company Comcast ( CMCSA) reported rising net income. Telecom services firm Qwest ( Q) posted declining revenue and earnings and said it would cut 1,200 jobs during the fourth quarter.

Oil refiner and gas station operator Hess ( HES) posted higher quarterly earnings.

Meanwhile, glass-panel manufacturer Corning ( GLW) reported revenue that was below expectations and reduced its fourth-quarter sales guidance. Garmin ( GRMN), which makes navigational devices, fell short on its quarterly profit and warned that full-year results will also miss forecasts.

As for consumer staples, Procter & Gamble ( PG) bested analysts' profit estimates, and packaged-food firm Kraft ( KFT) said its income rose year over year on a one-time gain from its disposal of the Post cereal business.

The government's Troubled Asset Relief Program remained in focus, as The Wall Street Journal reported that GMAC, a finance company jointly owned by General Motors ( GM) and Cerberus Capital, is applying for status as a bank holding company to access the Treasury Department's $700 billion capital-injection plan for banks.

For its part, GM announced Wednesday that it sold 2.1 million vehicles in the third quarter, down 11% from a year ago.

The Journal also reported that cell-phone maker Motorola ( MOT) is working to cut back its phone division and refocus on using Google's ( GOOG) Android software for its devices.

In analyst actions, consumer-goods firm Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) caught a JPMorgan downgrade to neutral from overweight.

Moving to economic data, the Census Bureau's read on September durable-goods orders showed a surprise 0.8% uptick, up from a 5.5% decline in August and better than the 1% drop expected by economists. Excluding transportation, new orders dropped 1.1%, and taking out defense, they edged down 0.6%.

The Energy Information Administration reported that crude-oil inventories rose by 500,000 barrels for the week ended Oct. 24, an increase that fell short of expectations.

Following the report, crude oil was rising $3.93 to $66.66 a barrel. Gold was gaining $28.80 to $769.30 an ounce.

Longer-dated U.S. Treasury securities were mixed. The 10-year was flat in price to yield 3.83%, and the 30-year was up 8/32, yielding 4.18%. The dollar was falling vs. its major foreign competitors.

Overseas, European exchanges were mixed, as the FTSE in London moved higher but the DAX in Frankfurt took losses. As for the Asian exchanges, Japan's Nikkei closed sharply higher, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng logged a modest gain.

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