U.S. Stocks Lackluster as Rate Hike Chatter Heats Up

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Benchmark U.S. stock indices had a mixed start Thursday, with the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average poised for weekly declines and extending prior session losses. The markets were bracing for a U.S. consumer sentiment report and earlier-than-expected interest rate hikes.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was inching 0.1% lower to 16,830.07. The S&P 500 was down 0.1% to 1,955.34. The Nasdaq was up just 0.02% to 4,379.84. U.S. markets closed in the red Thursday after St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard told reporters in New York that the central bank should deliver its first federal funds rate hike at the end of the first quarter of 2015. Bullard has been among those pressing Fed Chair Janet Yellen and the central bank to move up the timeline for raising rates. "I did consider the pros and cons of moving that [target]," Bullard said. "Some of the things I'm saying today sound pretty optimistic about the economy, but we also have this negative first quarter, which was a vexing issue, and when I weighed those two I said, 'Well, maybe I'll just leave it at the end of the first quarter.'"

European markets were relatively buoyant this morning, despite falls in Asia overnight. Economic indicators showed the U.K.'s strong recovery continued -- although analysts were slightly disappointed that the Office for National Statistics did not revise its annual growth prediction of 1.7% upwards, as forecast. Asia stocks took a hit on signs of slowing industrial profit growth out of China.

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