Stocks struggle for gains; UnitedHealth weighs – CNBC

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U.S. stocks traded in a range Thursday, following solid gains Wednesday, as investors sought further indications of support for a December rate hike from data and Fed speakers.

“The market is just going to be volatile trading on bits and pieces of news that come out until we get to November retail sales and the November employment report,” said Chuck Self, CIO of iSectors. He does not expect the Federal Reserve to raise rates until March at the earliest.

The major averages fluctuated between slight gains and losses in morning trade.

Health care fell more than 1 percent as the greatest laggard in the S&P 500. Energy was also among the worst performers as WTI crude traded nearly 1 percent lower around $41.60 a barrel in morning trade.

UnitedHealth was the greatest weight on the Dow Jones industrial average, while IBM contributed the most to gains.

UnitedHealth held more than 3 percent lower in morning trade after the health insurer cut its forecast for the year, mentioning lower than expected activity at the health care exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act.

The Nasdaq composite struggled for gains as Apple tried to hold higher and the iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF (IBB) fell more than 1.5 percent.

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart is set to speak at the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce in Georgia at 12:30 p.m. ET, and Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer will be at the San Francisco Fed at 4:45 p.m. ET, discussing emerging Asia.

Earlier, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that policymakers are not boxed in on rates and that she doesn’t think the Fed is behind the curve.

On the data front, initial jobless claims came in at 271,000. The Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing survey’s diffusion index for current activity came in for November at 1.9, its first positive reading in three months.

U.S. October leading indicators rose 0.6 percent, slightly more than expected.

Read MoreFed speakers up next after minutes confirm hiking message

The 10-year Treasury note yield edged lower to 2.25 percent, while the 2-year yield was little changed at 0.87 percent.

The U.S. dollar traded half a percent lower against major world currencies, with the euro at $1.071 and the yen at 122.89 yen against the dollar.

Overnight, the Bank of Japan kept monetary policy unchanged.

“I think or at least I hope the market responded positively to the minutes indicating while they want to keep their options open a rate hike looks more and more like December,” said Ryan Larson, head of equity trading, U.S., at RBC Global Asset Management (U.S.).

He expects modest stock moves during Thursday’s session.

U.S. stocks closed higher by nearly 1.5 percent or more Wednesday after the Federal Reserve’s October meeting minutes showed most members of the Federal Open Market Committee thought a December hike would be appropriate.

“Our market internal measures support near-term upside follow-through, particularly given the positive seasonal influences that are upon us,” BTIG Chief Technical Strategist Katie Stockton said in a morning note. “Up-volume overwhelmed down-volume by more than 9-to-1 yesterday after a collection of contrarian extremes were registered last Friday.”

In other earnings news, Best Buy beat estimates by six cents with adjusted profit of 41 cents per share, but its revenue was merely in line and its same store sales increase of 0.8 percent was only half of what analysts were expecting.

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In morning trade, the Dow Jones Industrial Average traded down 3 points, or 0.02 percent, at 17,734, with UnitedHealth leading decliners and United Technologies the greatest advancer.

The S&P 500 traded up 2 points, or 0.10 percent, at 2,085, with consumer staples leading eight sectors higher and energy and health care the only laggards.

The Nasdaq traded up 8 points, or 0.16 percent, at 5,083.

About seven stocks advanced for every six decliners on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 86 million and a composite volume of 317 million.

Crude oil futures fell 47 cents to $40.28 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Gold futures gained $12.60 to $1,081.30 an ounce as of 9:50 a.m.

CNBC’s Peter Schacknow contributed to this report.