Stocks higher as Fed starts twoday meeting

Markets in Toronto and on Wall Street were slightly higher Tuesday, as the U.S. Federal Reserve holds a two-day meeting that will likely end with the central bank announcing it’s ready to start reducing its monetary stimulus.The S&P/TSX composite index climbed 21.90  points to 12,838.78. The Canadian dollar was up 0.35 of a cent to 97.20 cents US.Though hiring and economic growth in the United States remain soft, the Fed is widely expected to slow the pace of its US$85-billion-a-month in bond purchases as early as Wednesday at the end of its policy meeting.Most economists expect the Fed’s initial “tapering” move to be small — a reduction of between $10 billion to $15 billion of monthly purchases in Treasurys and mortgage bonds.The program, dubbed quantitative easing, had been put in place to keep long-term loan rates low to get people to borrow and invest in the stock market.U.S. indexes were positive, as the Dow Jones industrials jumped 42.39 points to 15,533.87, while the S&P 500 added 5.83 points to 1,703.43.The Nasdaq was ahead 20.03 points to 3,737.88, boosted by a 0.55 per cent rise in shares of Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT) after the tech company’s board approved a 22 per cent increase to its quarterly dividend along with a new $40 billion stock buyback program. Shares of the Redmond, Wash.-based company rose 18 cents to US$32.98 by midday. The stock had traded as low as US$26.26 last December.North American markets had closed higher on Monday after economist Larry Summers, the frontrunner to head the central bank, bowed out.Summers had long been perceived as an opponent to the Fed’s aggressive bond-buying program, and his withdrawal to succeed current Fed chairman Ben Bernanke had investors predicting that Fed vice-chair Janet Yellen, a supporter of the stimulus program, may be next in line for the top job.“We’re seeing the second round of reduced optimism from Summers’ withdrawal but that’s finding itself in a tug of war with what’s on deck with the Fed speaking in terms of tapering,” said Kash Pashootan, vice-president and portfolio manager at First Avenue Advisory in Ottawa, a Raymond James company.“We’re now onto the next hurdle and what the Fed will indicate in terms of the tapering of what’s to come.”A number of economic releases came out Tuesday, but most economists agreed that unless the results are earth-shattering, the Fed has already made up its mind about pulling back on its stimulus.The U.S. Labor Department reported that consumer prices barely rose last month, the latest sign that slow economic growth is keeping inflation tame.The consumer price index increased just 0.1 per cent in August, after a 0.2 per cent increase in July. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, core prices also rose just 0.1 per cent.Pashootan said the disappointing figures will do little to sway the Fed’s mind on reducing stimulus.“Given the trend month-to-month, especially in the U.S., has been positive, there is enough conviction there that tapering should start,” he said.“Again, that’s the markets best guess of what will happen and that’s why we’re still seeing that cautious sort of stance because the Fed may look at it a little bit differently. I don’t think the softer than expected numbers here and there are going to have an impact on what the Fed will do because the underlying pattern has been positive for a while now.”Meanwhile, Statistics Canada says manufacturing sales rose 1.7 per cent to $49.5 billion in July — far better than analysts had expected, with Ontario showing the biggest monthly gain since mid-2012. The federal agency says gains were recorded in 15 of 21 industries and six of Canada’s provinces.The Toronto Stock Exchange was fairly mixed by mid-day, as the info tech sector registered the highest gain of 0.71 per cent. Shares in BlackBerry Ltd. (TSX:BB) climbed two per cent or 22 cents to $10.89.The energy sector gained 0.27 per cent as oil prices declined. The October crude contract dipped 77 cents to US$105.82 a barrel.The gold sector was up 0.26 per cent, while December bullion fell $6.50 to US$1,311.30 an ounce. Shares in Barrick Gold Corp. (TSX:ABX) were down 0.11 per cent, or five cents, to $18.72 after the company said it is working to strengthen its governance practices and is looking to add new independent directors to its board.The gold miner, which has been under pressure from shareholders to make changes, said it is also looking at making improvements to its executive compensation practices.The metals and mining sector was up 0.43 per cent, while December copper was unchanged at US$3.22 a pound.

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