Dow edges slightly higher in afternoon trade, with Powell speech awaited

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U.S. stocks were slightly higher Wednesday, after Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said he remained focused on getting Americans back to work and downplayed the risk of runaway inflation.

A report on U.S. inflation also showed investors have little to worry about, for now, giving a brief boost to stocks in early trade.

What are major benchmarks doing?

  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average was 70 points, or 0.2%, higher, trading at about 31,434, after flipping between small gains and losses.
  • The S&P 500 was 3 points higher, near about 3,911.
  • The Nasdaq Composite was flat near 14,006.

Stocks Tuesday saw little movement, with the Dow and S&P 500 posting small losses to snap a six-day winning streak for both indexes, while the Nasdaq Composite eked out a small gain to capture another record close. The small-cap Russell 2000 outpaced its larger-cap siblings with a 0.4% gain to also post another record finish.

See: Is the stock market due for a correction in 2021? Here’s what some experts think

What’s driving the market?

Fed Chairman Powell on Wednesday said he and his colleagues were focused on getting Americans back to work in the wake of the devastating pandemic, but also stressed that he was not yet concerned with the prospects of runaway inflation, during a talk on the state of the labor market.

“Inflation has been much lower and more stable over the past three decades than in earlier times,” Powell told the Economic Club of New York.

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Powell instead stressed that the global economy mostly has struggled with deflation over the past decade. He also said that while households have been socking away savings during the pandemic, which could temporarily lead to a boost in demand for products and services as the threat subsides, that he does not expect the bounce to be “large nor sustained.”

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The U.S. consumer price index rose 0.3% in January as expected, after climbing 0.4% a month earlier, but excluding volatile food and energy prices the core CPI was unchanged versus an expected increase of 0.1%. CPI inflation was up 1.4% in the past 12 months.

While the headline economic indicators aren’t showing evidence of inflation yet, commodities prices are, noted Andrew Smith, chief investment strategist at Dallas-based Delos Capital Advisors. Raw materials like oil

lumber and corn have all shot higher over the past few months, and may start to pinch Americans’ pocketbooks soon, he said.

Even so, Smith told MarketWatch, “We think we’ve hit a good new stride in the market.” While valuations are high in all corners of the market, “We’re finally seeing earnings growth,” he said.

Investors also remain focused on prospects for another large round of government spending, as well as a slowing pace of new COVID-19 infections, along with the ongoing vaccine rollout.

The U.S. federal budget deficit increased sharply in January to $163 billion as Washington funneled more financial aid to families and unemployed workers to cushion the latest blow from the coronavirus pandemic. The deficit increased last month from a $33 billion budget gap in the same month of 2020, the Treasury Department said Wednesday. The budget gap in the first four months of the current fiscal year was 89% higher compared to a year earlier — $736 billion vs. $347 billion.

President Joe Biden is targeting an $1.9 trillion package and Congressional Democrats have taken steps that would allow them to push through a spending plan without Republican support in the evenly divided Senate via a process known as budget reconciliation. The size of the plan is expected to shrink somewhat, however, due to resistance from some Democrats.

Investors were expected to pay little attention to the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, with arguments under way in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon. The Senate voted Tuesday that the trial could proceed after a round of arguments over the constitutionality of trying a former president. The trial isn’t expected to affect financial markets since it isn’t seen as interfering with a push toward another round of coronavirus aid spending.

See: 24 bank stocks with dividends of at least 3.57%, three times what 10-year Treasurys pay

Which companies are in focus?

  • Shares of Coca-Cola Co. ticked slightly lower after delivering earnings and revenue Wednesday morning that topped Wall Street expectations.
  • Canadian cannabis company Tilray Inc. ‘s shares soared 36% Wednesday, after the stock appeared to draw support from the Reddit crowd that drove up shares of GameStop Inc.
  • Shares of Twitter Inc. surged 8.7% after the social-media platform delivered its second-ever $1 billion quarter late Tuesday.
  • Shares of Oracle Corp.   and Walmart Inc.  were lower following a report that a planned forced sale of TikTok’s American operations to a group that includes the two companies has been shelved indefinitely.
  • Cisco Systems Inc. late Tuesday reported quarterly results that topped Wall Street estimates, though sales in certain segments came in below expectations. Shares of the maker of network services, videoconferencing tools and security software slid 4.4%.
  • Mattel Inc. shares fell 1.4% even after the toy maker topped Wall Street expectations for its fourth quarter and said it continued to be “mindful” of COVID-related “volatility and other macroeconomic uncertainties.”
  • Shares of Yelp Inc. also reversed early gains to tumble 5.6% despite reporting better-than-expected sales and earningslate Tuesday.
  • In deal news, shares of NIC Inc. jumped about 15% after the digital government solutions and payments company agreed to be acquired by Tyler Technologies Inc. in a $2.3 billion cash deal.

What are other markets doing?

  • The yield on the 10-year Treasury note  slid about 2 basis points to about 1.140%, after earlier eyeing a key threshold at 1.2%. Yields and bond prices move in opposite directions.
  • The ICE U.S. Dollar Index,  a measure of the currency against a basket of six major rivals, fell 0.1% to about 90.36.
  • Oil futures rose in choppy trade, after a report showed lower stockpiles, with the U.S. benchmark  up 0.5% to $58.64 per barrel. Gold futures  were 0.3% higher, near $1,839 an ounce.
  • The pan-European Stoxx 600 Europe index  shed 0.2% and London’s FTSE 100 fell 0.1%.
  • In Asia, the Shanghai Composite  closed 1.4% higher, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index surged 1.9%, and Japan’s Nikkei 225   ticked up 0.2%.

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