Stocks hold steady on Federal Reserve announcement

Stocks held near record levels Wednesday after wavering in response to the latest economic assessments by the Federal Reserve. July was still the best month for stocks since January.

Richard Drew/AP
A television screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows the rate decision by the Federal Reserve, as specialist Jeffrey Berger works at his post, Wednesday. Steady growth in the US economy and higher company earnings helped stocks hold near record levels Wednesday.

The stock market was poised to end July with its biggest monthly gain in close to two years after the Federal Reserve reaffirmed its commitment to support the economy.

Steady growth in the U.S. economy and higher company earnings also helped the stock market hold near record levels Wednesday. The Standard & Poor's 500 rose for the seventh day out of the past eight, putting it on track to end the month with its biggest monthly advance since October 2011.

Stocks climbed after the Federal Reserve released its updated policy statement at the end of a two-day meeting. The central bank said it will keep buying $85 billion of bonds to help bolster the economy and slightly downgraded its assessment of the economy's growth in the first half of the year.

Markets surged this month after Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke assured investors that the central bank wouldn't pull back on the stimulus until the economy had recovered sufficiently.

"It's not like the economy is accelerating so fast that they need to" ease back on stimulus immediately, said Jerry Braakman, chief investment officer at First American Trust. "It's beneficial for the stock market."

The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose eight points, or 0.5 percent, to 1,693 as of 3:24 p.m. (1924 GMT). The index has gained 5.4 percent in July, its best monthly performance since October 2011.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 39 points, or 0.3 percent, to 15,560. The Nasdaq composite gained 24 points, or 0.7 percent, to 3,640.

Stocks gained in early trading after the government said that the economy grew at a faster pace in the second quarter than economists had forecast. There was also an encouraging report on hiring ahead of the government's monthly jobs survey due out Friday.

The U.S. economy expanded at an annual rate of 1.7 percent from April through June as businesses spent more and the federal government cut less spending, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Economists had expected growth of 1 percent for the period, according to the data provider FactSet.

U.S. businesses created a healthy 200,000 jobs this month, payroll company ADP said, as companies hired at the fastest pace since December. ADP also raised its estimate of the number of jobs the private sector created in June.

On the bond market, investors anticipated that the Fed's slightly weaker assessment of the economy would imply a longer period of bond purchases. Bond yields fell as demand increased for U.S. government debt. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.58 percent from 2.66 percent just before the announcement.

Investors were also tracking company earnings.

Comcast rose $2.21, or 5.2 percent, to $44.89 after the parent company of the NBC network and Universal Studios reported earnings and revenue that exceed analysts' expectations in the second quarter.

Software company Symantec, which makes the Norton antivirus software, surged after the company reported earnings and revenue that beat analysts' forecasts. The stock rose $2.21, or 9.1 percent, to $26.55.

Analysts are currently forecasting that second-quarter earnings rose an average of 4.75 percent for S&P 500 companies, according to S&P Capital IQ. That would be the slowest rate of growth in three quarters.

In commodities trading, the price of oil rose $1.95, or 1.9 percent, to $105.03 a barrel. Gold dropped $11.80, or 1 percent, to $1,313 an ounce.

Among other stocks making big moves:

— Air Products & Chemicals rose $3.46, or 3.3 percent, to $109 after the Wall Street journal reported that activist investor William Ackman had bought a 9.8 percent stake in the gas company.

Herbalife rose $5.21, or 8.7 percent, to $65.25 after CNBC reported that the veteran hedge fund investor George Soros had taken a stake in the company. Herbalife has been at the center of a battle between investors Ackman and Carl Ichan, who are taking opposing positions in the stock.

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