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Wall St. flat as investors eye Friday's jobs report

By Yashaswini Swamynathan

U.S. stocks were little changed on Wednesday as investors focused on Friday’s crucial nonfarm payrolls report after a better-than-expected private hiring report strengthened chances of a rate increase next week.

Financial stocks rose after the ADP National Employment report showed that the U.S. private sector added 298,000 jobs last month, blowing past economists’ average estimate of 190,000.

The S&P 500 financial index .SPSY rose 1.14 percent, led by gains in Bank of America (BAC.N), Citigroup (C.N) and Wells Fargo (WFC.N).

Goldman Sachs (GS.N) was the top stock on the Dow with a 0.9 percent gain.

Traders have priced in an all-but-certain quarter point rate hike during the Fed’s meeting on March 14-15, but investors are keen to know whether the central bank would increase the pace of rate hikes.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen last week remarked that tightening monetary policy would likely not be as slow this year as it was in 2016 and 2015.

“Even if the Fed raises rates next week, it would be to 75 basis points which is historically very low and is still considered very easy money,” said Adam Sarhan, chief executive officer at 50 Park Investments, in Florida.

“For the first time in years, you have hope that fiscal policy will be kicked into gear in the U.S. and other parts of the world … that leads to healthier economic conditions and that’s why stocks refuse to fall in a meaningful way.”

The dollar gathered strength on Wednesday, while gold – which tends to lose value as rates rise – was lower.

At 9:39 a.m. ET (1439 GMT), the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI was up 11.29 points, or 0.05 percent, at 20,936.05, the S&P 500 .SPX was up 1.95 points, or 0.08 percent, at 2,370.34 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC was up 11.35 points, or 0.19 percent, at 5,845.28.

Eight of the 11 major S&P sectors were lower, with high dividend-yielding utilities .SPLRCU and real estate .SPLRCR nursing losses.

Exxon (XOM.N) and Chevron (CVX.N) were the top drags on the S&P as oil prices slipped more than 1 percent. [O/R]

Among stocks, Caterpillar (CAT.N) fell 1.2 percent to $94.75, weighing the most on the Dow, after the New York Times said it reviewed a report commissioned by the U.S. government that accused the heavy equipment maker of carrying out tax and accounting fraud.

Urban Outfitters (URBN.O) was the biggest percentage loser on the S&P, with an 8.4 percent decline following a sales miss that led William Blair to downgrade the stock and other brokerages to cut price targets.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers on the NYSE by 1,460 to 1,203. On the Nasdaq, 1,538 issues rose and 718 fell.

The S&P 500 index showed four new 52-week highs and six new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 19 new highs and 13 new lows.

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