Wall Street struggled for direction in the final hours of the Wednesday session after the Federal Reserve stood pat on rates, but stayed vague on how it will move for the rest of the year.
The S&P 500 was up 0.03%, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.14%, and the Nasdaq gained 0.50%. The S&P 500 dipped in and out of the red throughout the afternoon.
The new board for the Federal Open Market Committee left the fed funds rate unchanged at 0.5% to 0.75%. The FOMC hiked rates by 25 basis points at its December meeting. The no-change decision was as economists expected.
In its statement following the decision, the Fed reiterated that rate hikes would continue to be gradual and that the risks to its outlook remain roughly balanced. In a small change, the Fed said inflation "will rise" to 2%, rather than that it was expected to rise to the Fed's target rate.
"Those hoping for even a smidgen of additional guidance as to the timing of the next rate hike were sorely disappointed by today's FOMC statement," said Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel Fixed Income.
Fed watchers now look ahead to Fed Chair Janet Yellen' semi-annual monetary policy testimony before Congress on Feb. 14 and 15. Minutes of this meeting will be released on Feb. 22.
The Nasdaq led gains on Wall Street following earnings from Apple (AAPL - Get Report) . Apple topped Wall Street estimates in its recent quarter, a positive development after a string of poorly received earnings reports from the tech giant. Apple rose 6.1% as strong demand for the iPhone 7 propelled sales and earnings growth over its fiscal first quarter. Earnings rose 8% to $3.36 a share, topping estimates of $3.23, while sales increased 3% to $78.4 billion and came in higher than consensus of $77.4 billion.
Over the first quarter, 78.3 million iPhones were sold, up 5% from a year earlier and better than a target of 77 million. Services revenue also increased over the quarter to $7.17 billion, up from $6.01 billion in the year-ago quarter.
A better-than-expected first quarter overshadowed any blowback from light current-quarter guidance. The world's largest company anticipates second-quarter sales between $51.5 billion and $53.5 billion, below a target of $53.6 billion.
Apple ended its fourth quarter in September with its first revenue decline in a fiscal year since 2001. The shock was mainly tied to declining sales of the iPhone.
Stocks had been under pressure for the previous two days as investors reacted to uncertainty surrounding the Trump White House. First, protests erupted at airports over the weekend following Donald Trump's executive order to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, a ruling that extended to lawful visa and green card holders. Then, a number of federal judges deemed the ruling unlawful. On Monday night, the president fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates for "refusing to enforce" the travel ban.
On Tuesday evening, Trump selected Neil M. Gorsuch as his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States. The much-anticipated decision was announced at the White House on Tuesday evening and will most certainly be met with fierce opposition by Senate Democrats and liberal activist groups around the country. Gorsuch was nominated to fill a seat on the Supreme Court that has remained vacant since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
"After a week, instead of dying down, the news from [and] around the Trump administration has instead expanded and accelerated to swamp the news cycle; last week it was the wall, this week it is the travel ban," said Tom Siomades, head of Hartford Funds Investment Consulting Group. "Markets are a bit nervous right now because there seem to be a lot more issues than solutions coming from the White House."
Utilities were the worst performers on Wall Street on Wednesday. Industry leaders including NextEra Energy (NEE - Get Report) , Duke Energy (DUK - Get Report) , and Southern Co. (SO - Get Report) fell, while the Utilities Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLU - Get Report) declined by 1.69%.
Crude oil trading closed higher despite a weekly reading on inventories showing a sharp increase. U.S. stocks rose by 6.5 million barrels over the week ended January 27, according to the Energy Information Administration. Analysts had expected stocks to rise by 2.2 million barrels.
West Texas Intermediate crude was up 2% to $53.88 a barrel on Wednesday. The energy sector was one of the worst performers on Wall Street, with the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLE - Get Report) falling nearly 1%.
The ISM Manufacturing Index increased to 56 in January from 54.7 in December, coming in higher than an anticipated reading of 55. The sector appears to have rebounded from the pressures of weak demand and a stronger U.S. dollar that hampered growth last year.
A separate reading on manufacturing also showed growth. The U.S. PMI Manufacturing Index rose to 55 in January from 54.2, according to Markit Economics.
The U.S. economy added 246,000 jobs to private payrolls in January, according to the ADP National Employment Report. Economists expected 170,000 jobs to have been added last month, according to FactSet.
The monthly account is a preview into the official U.S. jobs report that is released the following Friday of each month. The nonfarm payrolls report, out this Friday, is expected to show that the U.S. economy added 170,000 jobs to begin the new year and for the unemployment rate to hold at 4.7%. Average hourly earnings are expected to have risen 0.3%.
Ford (F - Get Report) reported a slump in car sales over January, which was slightly offset by an increase in truck sales. The automaker reported a 1% drop in total vehicle sales. Car sales fell 17.5%, while truck sales increased 5.5%. Retail sales rose 6%. Shares fell 0.4%.
Fiat Chrysler (FCAU - Get Report) also reported a sharp decline in car sales. The automaker reported an overall drop of 11% compared to an estimated 14% decline. Car sales slumped 30%, while truck sales increased 5%.
General Motors (GM - Get Report) saw a drop in January sales, which caused inventories to surge. Overall vehicles sales fell 3.8%, slightly better than an anticipated decline of 4.3%. The automaker ended January with 108 days of supply compared to 71 days' worth at the end of 2016. The stock declined 1.3%.