U.S. stocks were mildly higher in choppy trading Wednesday as investors speculated about the outcome of tomorrow’s European Central Bank policy meeting.
There was some measured optimism that the region’s central bank would finally provide the outline of a concrete plan to combat its debt crisis. Bloomberg has reported ECB President Mario Draghi is set to propose a sterilized bond-buying program of unlimited size.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average was gaining more than 31 points, or 0.24%, at 13,067.
Gainers were dominating the Dow with 25 of the index’s 30 components on the rise. The biggest winners were Alcoa (AA), Intel (INTC), and Walt Disney (DIS).
United Technologies (UTX), Pfizer (PFE), and Kraft Foods (KFT) were in the red.
The S&P 500 was adding less than 2 points, or 0.13%, at 1407. The Nasdaq was tacking on a little more than a point, or 0.04%, at 3076.
The strongest sectors in the broad market were conglomerates, consumer non-cyclicals, healthcare and services. The weakest were transportation, energy, consumer cyclicals and capital goods.
Volume was at 1.42 billion on the New York Stock Exchange and 608.6 million on the Nasdaq.
“We move towards the ECB meeting tomorrow, with markets looking for reasons to be volatile,” said Paul Donovan, global economist at UBS. “We expect the ECB to ease the refi (not the discount) rate and to give a broad outline of the bond buying program — with the constraint that we still have the German court ruling [the permanent European rescue fund] ahead.”
Wednesday’s U.S. economic data was mildly positive. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provided a revised read on U.S. second-quarter nonfarm business productivity of up 2.2%, above the 1.8% gain expected by economists.
The report said the read on second-quarter unit labor costs was revised to a 1.5% increase, as expected. The previous read showed a 1.7% gain.
The data from across the pond was more troublesome. European Union’s statistics office said Wednesday that retail trade in the region fell 0.2% in July from June as worsening economic conditions hurt consumer demand.
Also, Markit published data showing that its August composite PMI index on manufacturing and services declined to a revised 46.3, down from the flash reading of 46.6 and the July level of 46.5.
The FTSE in London was drifting lower, down 0.39%, while the DAX in Germany was up 0.18%. The Hong Kong Hang Seng index closed behind by 1.47% and the Nikkei in Japan finished down 1.09%.
The benchmark 10-year Treasury was down 5/32, diluting the yield to 1.593%. The greenback was down 0.17%, according to the dollar index.
October crude oil futures were down 11 cents at $95.25 a barrel and December gold futures were gaining 80 cents at $1,696.80 an ounce.
On the corporate front, FedEx (FDX), the package delivery giant, said it now expects earnings of $1.37 to $1.43 a share in its fiscal first quarter ended in August, well below its original forecast for a profit of $1.45 to $1.60 a share.
FedEx said global weakness “constrained revenue growth at FedEx Express more than expected in the earlier guidance.” Analysts were expecting earnings of $1.56 a share in the first quarter. The stock was down 1.3%.
Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg indicated he has no plans to sell any of his stock holdings in the social networking giant for at least 12 months. The shares were up more than 4%.
Nokia (NOK) and Microsoft (MSFT) on Wednesday to unveiled Nokia’s new Lumia 920 smartphone in New York.
The new phone, Nokia’s most powerful, will feature Windows Phone 8, the latest version of Microsoft’s operating system. Nokia shares were down nearly 10%, while Microsoft’s stock lost less than 1%.
Guidewire Software (GWRE) shares were advancing more than 10% after the provider of system software to the global property and casualty insurance industry posted Wednesday evening fiscal fourth-quarter results that beat expectations.
Dollar General (DG) hiked its full-year earnings guidance, after posting stronger fiscal-second quarter profit, as demand for basic goods and cheaper foods rose.
The discount retailer also announced that its board has approved the buyback of up to an additional $500 million of its common stock. The stock added 1.5%.
via The Street