S&P 500 in Range of Record Highs as Fed Says Consumers Spending More

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The U.S. has seen widespread consumer spending rise in most regions with retailers optimistic for the holiday season, the Federal Reserve said in its Beige Book released Wednesday afternoon.

"Consumer spending continued to trend higher in most Districts in October and November," the Fed said. "Some contacts viewed lower gasoline prices as a contributing factor to higher consumer spending, and an early cold spell helped spur sales of winter apparel in several Districts."

The survey, released monthly, provides anecdotal insight into the 12 regional banks which compose the central body. The Fed will meet to discuss monetary policy at its monthly meeting on Dec. 16-17.

Overall wage and price growth remains "subdued," the Beige Book said. Earlier, President Barack Obama committed to working with CEOs to address "tricky questions" on wage growth. Addressing a Business Roundtable in Washington, Obama said while he was confident in the overall economy he was concerned the record highs achieved in corporate profits were not trickling down to every American.

Hourly compensation growth was given a 1% haircut in November, while unit labor costs slipped 1% rather than increasing an estimated 0.3%, according to the Labor Department Wednesday. Nonfarm productivity rose 2.3% during the third quarter, up from a previous 2% pace.

The release comes at a time when stock markets are grinding slowly higher ahead of the European Central Bank's meeting Thursday. Economists hope ECB President Mario Draghi and colleagues will decide to purchase government bonds in its next round of stimulus measures after it began to buy asset-backed securities late November.

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U.S. stocks were a hair's breadth from record highs on Wednesday as energy stocks led gainers and shook off recent tumbling commodity prices. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 0.18% after closing with a new record high on Tuesday. The S&P 500 added 0.38%, only one point from a new intraday record, while the Nasdaq added 0.44%.

Among the leaders, Halliburton (HAL) added 1.6%, BP (BP) gained 1.6% and Schlumberger (SLB) spiked 2%. The Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLE) was up 1.2%.

"The debate is whether the commodity price bottomed out," said U.S. Bank Wealth Management's Eric Wiegand in a call. "Investors are searching for opportunities right now. There's a general view that the markets are somewhat fully valued so an opportunity to get something that has not participated is appealing."

Crude oil was rising 0.55% on Wednesday after tanking nearly 3% on Tuesday. West Texas Intermediate crude has settled at $67.25 a barrel, around 37% lower than its mid-summer high. Crude prices have been squeezed after OPEC declined to constrain production last week despite global oversupply and slowing growth in the eurozone and China.

Private payrolls data missed estimates, prompting worries the job market recovery isn't as strong as expected. The domestic private sector added 208,000 jobs in November, according to the ADP National Employment Report. Economists had hoped for private payrolls to increase 221,000. The measure remains strong, though, with private employers adding an average 186,000 jobs per month for the 57th consecutive month.

"Despite coming in at a below par gain of 208,000, there is not much to be disappointed about in the latest ADP employment report," said Andrew Wilkinson, Interactive Brokers' chief market analysts in a note. "While it is the slowest pace of gains since August, additional jobs were broad based and appear to raise few red flags."

The Labor Department is set to issue its monthly jobs figures Friday. Economists expect 230,000 jobs to have been added over the month, higher than October's 214,000 total. The unemployment rate is forecast to remain at 5.8%.

It was a busy day for data as growth in the domestic services sector climbed at a faster rate than expected in November. ISM non-manufacturing activity rose to 59.3 in November, climbing at the second-fastest rate since 2005. Economists had estimated a reading of 57.1. Business activity climbed to 64.4 from 60, while new orders slipped to 51.4 from 59.1.

Diagnostics companies Illumina (ILMN) and Sequenom (SQNM) were gaining after settling all patent infringement claims against one another. Illumina added 1.7%, while smaller rival Sequenom surged 23.4%.

G-III Apparel (GIII) was climbing 14.4% after reporting a 21% jump in revenue over its third quarter and increasing its full-year sales guidance.

J.C. Penney (JCP) was knocked by a downgrade to "sell" from Goldman Sachs. Analysts said the retailer showed slowing comparable same-store sales and anemic e-commerce growth. Shares fell 3.3%.

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--Written by Keris Alison Lahiff in New York.

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