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S&P 500 barely gains as investors eye upcoming jobs data, rate hikes

Traders work on the floor of the NYSE in New York

By Sinéad Carew and Shristi Achar A

(Reuters) - The S&P 500 index closed slightly higher while the Dow dipped on Wednesday as investors grappled with mixed messages from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and U.S. economic data ahead of upcoming labor and inflation reports that are expected to determine the central bank's future rate hiking path.

In his second day of testimony to Congress on Wednesday, Powell reaffirmed his message from Tuesday, of higher and potentially faster interest rate hikes. However, he suggested that the next rate hike decision hinges on data to be issued before the Fed's March meeting.

Stocks had fallen more than 1% on Tuesday after Powell's comments led investors to dramatically increase bets on a 50-basis-point hike in March compared with the previous widely held expectation for a 25-basis-point hike before Powell spoke.

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Data released on Wednesday did little to ease concerns about higher rates as it showed that U.S. private payrolls increased more than expected in February.

Another report showed U.S. job openings fell less than expected in January and data for the prior month was revised higher, pointing to persistently tight labor market conditions fueling concerns that this would keep the Fed on track to raise interest rates for longer.

"Investors are digesting Fed Chair Powell's testimony to Congress and data indicating that the job market remains pretty hot," said Tom Hainlin, national investment strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management, in Minneapolis.

Hainlin sees Friday's non-farm payroll report and next week's inflation readings for February as the keys to whether the next rate hike will be 25 or 50 basis points.

Traders kept increasing bets for a Fed rate hike of 50 basis points later this month, with fed funds futures recently showing a roughly 80% chance for such a hike, up from about 70% on Tuesday and 31% on Monday before Powell's first testimony, according to CME Group's FedWatch tool.

At the end of the session, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen 58.06 points, or 0.18%, to 32,798.4; the S&P 500 closed up 5.64 points, or 0.14%, at 3,992.01; and the Nasdaq Composite added 45.67 points, or 0.4%, to end at 11,576.00.

Among the S&P's 11 major sectors, seven closed higher. Energy, down 1%, was the biggest loser, as oil prices fell. Leading gains was real estate, which closed up 1.3%.

Technology was the second biggest gainer, up 0.8%, helping Nasdaq outperform the other major indexes.

Tesla Inc slid 3% after the U.S. auto safety regulator said it was opening a preliminary investigation into 120,000 Model Y 2023 vehicles following reports about steering wheels falling off while driving.

Occidental Petroleum Corp gained 2% after Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc increased its stake in the oil company to about 22.2%.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers on the NYSE by a 1.02-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.14-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted two new 52-week highs and 11 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 48 new highs and 170 new lows.

On U.S. exchanges 10.3 billion shares changed hands compared with the 10.90 billion average for the last 20 sessions.

(Reporting by Sinéad Carew in New York, Shristi Achar A, Sruthi Shankar and Bansari Mayur Kamdar in Bengaluru, graphic by Noel Randewich, additional reporting by Amruta Khandekar; Editing by Vinay Dwivedi, Sriraj Kalluvia and Richard Chang)