February 26, 2019 / 8:27 PM / 2 months ago

US STOCKS-S&P swivels on mixed data, Fed comments help steady nerves

(Updates to late afternoon, adds commentary, changes byline, adds New York dateline)

* Fed’s Powell says to stay “patient” on rate hikes

* Consumer confidence rises more than expected in Feb

* Homebuilding hits more than two-year low in December

* Home Depot falls after sales miss estimates

* Caterpillar drops on double downgrade from UBS

* Indexes: S&P up 0.10 pct, Dow and Nasdaq flat

By Sinéad Carew

Feb 26 (Reuters) - U.S. equities swerved between positive and negative territory on Tuesday as investors eyed mixed economic data and corporate news while Federal Reserve comments calmed some nerves.

Weaker than expected housing data contrasted with a rosy consumer confidence reading while home improvement retailer Home Depot Inc was one of the biggest drags on the S&P after it blamed bad weather for missed Wall Street forecasts.

JPMorgan Chase & Co, the biggest U.S. bank by assets, warned that it expects rising costs for deposits, a key part of its business, and slowing global economic growth.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told a U.S. Senate Banking Committee that the Fed would remain “patient” in deciding on further interest rate hikes and that rising risks and recent soft data should not prevent solid growth for the economy this year.

“You’ve higher uncertainty today relative to yesterday,” said Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute in St. Louis.

“The economic data was mixed. We’ve had a market rally going on for about two months. All those things together suggest this would be a good time to take some profits. It’s not wholesale selling but profit taking around the edges.”

The indexes have been bolstered in recent weeks by trade optimism and dovish signals from the Fed, with the benchmark S&P 500 index just 4.7 percent away from its record closing high in September.

Along with mixed data Samana pointed to uncertainty over reports that U.S. President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen was set to tell lawmakers this week that Trump asked him several times about a proposed skyscraper project in Moscow long after he secured the Republican presidential nomination.

At 3:11PM ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 44.89 points, or 0.17 percent, at 26,136.84, the S&P 500 was 4.99 points, or 0.18 percent, higher at 2,801.1 and the Nasdaq Composite added 14.11 points, or 0.19 percent, to 7,568.57.

Nine of the 11 major S&P sectors were higher. The benchmark’s biggest boost was the technology index while the biggest drag was healthcare. The healthcare index was off 0.03 percent after a U.S. congressional hearing on the prices of medicines wrapped up in Washington. Declines in shares of health insurers Cigna Corp and UnitedHealth Group, both of which operate major pharmacy benefit managers, were big drags on the sector.

JPMorgan was the biggest weight on financials with a 0.9 percent drop.

Caterpillar Inc fell 1.8 percent and dragged on the industrials sector, after brokerage UBS downgraded the stock to a “sell” rating from a “buy” rating.

U.S. homebuilding tumbled to a more than two-year low in December as construction of both single and multi-family housing declined, the latest indication that the economy had lost momentum in the fourth quarter.

But the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index rose more than expected in February

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 1.02-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.15-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 16 new 52-week highs and one new low; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 45 new highs and 18 new lows. (Additional reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York, Shreyashi Sanyal and Medha Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Susan thomas)

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