U.S. Markets End Flat as Fed Warns of Looming 'Fiscal Cliff'

Category: Markets / Finance / Dec 12, 2012 6:19PM EDT
U.S. stocks ended nearly flat on Wednesday (December 12), giving up most of the day's gains after Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke reiterated that monetary policy won't be enough to offset damage from the "fiscal cliff." His comments followed the Federal Reserve's announcement of a new stimulus plan, which briefly pushed the S&P 500 to a seven-week high. The plan, the latest attempt to boost the country's struggling economy, will replace a more modest program set to expire with a fresh round of Treasury purchases that will increase its balance sheet. The program is known as "quantitative easing" or QE. In comments after the announcement, Bernanke said he hopes that markets won't have to tank to get a fiscal cliff deal. The S&P financial sector index, which had been up more than 1 percent after the Fed's announcement ended up just 0.5 percent. Wal-Mart Stores Inc's stock was the biggest drag on the Dow, falling 2.8 percent to $68.94 (USD) following the Indian government's announcement of an inquiry into the company's lobbying practices. The Dow Jones industrial average slipped 2.99 points, or 0.02 percent, to 13,245.45 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index inched up just 0.64 of a point, or 0.04 percent, to 1,428.48. But the Nasdaq Composite Index shed 8.49 points, or 0.28 percent, to end at 3,013.81. Though the S&P 500 ended up just slightly, it was the sixth day of gains for the index - its longest winning streak since August. The central bank committed to monthly purchases of $45 billion in Treasuries on top of the $40 billion per month in mortgage-backed bonds it started buying in September. It also said it will keep its near-zero interest-rate program in place until the U.S. unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent from its current 7.7 percent. Negotiations over plans to avoid the fiscal cliff intensified in Washington, but U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday that "serious differences" remain with President Barack Obama in their talks. If no agreement is reached, steep tax hikes and budget cuts will fall into place early next year. Shares of Aetna, the third-largest U.S. health insurer, gained 3.2 percent to $45.91, a day after the company gave a higher forecast for profit and revenue growth in 2013.