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S&P, Dow tread lower as pharma stocks weigh

By Yashaswini Swamynathan

The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average were slightly lower on Monday as gains in financials shares – ahead of a widely expected interest rate hike – were weighed down by losses in drug stocks.

The Federal Open Market Committee, the central bank’s policy-setting board, is expected to lift interest rates by a quarter point to 0.75 percent-1.00 percent after a two-day meeting that starts on Tuesday.

All the major S&P sectors traded within a small range, indicating subdued sentiment among investors.

Financials .SPSY led the gainers, but with a mere 0.13 percent rise, while healthcare .SPXHC was off 0.3 percent and on track to snap a three-day winning streak.

Merck (MRK.N) was the top drag on the healthcare sector as well as the Dow, declining 1.4 percent.

A non-partisan report on the costs associated with the Republican plan to replace Obamacare could increase opposition to the proposal, potentially hampering President Donald Trump’s first major legislative effort. The report is expected as soon as Monday.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in the healthcare sector,” said Brant Houston, managing director at CIBC Atlantic Trust Private Wealth Management in Colarado.

“Until this whole debate plays out, investors are going to be a little bit concerned about how these stocks will perform.”

Five of the 11 major S&P sectors were lower, with six little changed.

Investors are firmly focused on the Fed’s interest rate decision after an uptick in inflation and a strong U.S. labor market made a rate hike a near-certainty.

Traders have placed a 94 percent bet that Fed Chair Janet Yellen will announce an increase on Wednesday.

Her comments will closely analyzed for clues on whether the central bank could become more aggressive on rates as the economy shows signs of improvement.

“I think all eyes will be on what the Fed does and, more importantly, what they say in their comments,” Houston said.

At 11:18 a.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI was down 47.16 points, or 0.23 percent, at 20,855.82, the S&P 500 .SPX was down 2.7 points, or 0.1 percent, at 2,369.9 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC was up 8.59 points, or 0.15 percent, at 5,870.31.

Mobileye (MBLY.N) jumped nearly 30 percent to $61.10 after chipmaker Intel (INTC.O) agreed to buy the driverless technology maker for $15.3 billion. Intel’s shares were off 0.6 percent.

Shares of chipmaker Nvidia (NVDA.O), which is also involved in developing driverless technologies, rose 2.6 percent, helping the Nasdaq stay afloat.

Nutritional supplements maker Herbalife (HLF.N) rose 2.3 percent to $53.45 after billionaire investor Carl Icahn raised his stake to 24.57 percent.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 1,685 to 1,106. On the Nasdaq, 1,753 issues rose and 960 fell.

The S&P 500 index showed 30 new 52-week highs and three new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 76 new highs and 32 new lows.

(Reporting by Yashaswini Swamynathan in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)