NEW YORK After enduring several weeks of conflicting comments by Federal Reserve officials that whip-lashed the U.S. stock market, befuddled investors could get a dose of clarity next week on where the Fed stands on its path toward rate hikes.
Minutes of the Fed's March meeting will be released on Wednesday, giving investors a chance to comb through the summary for tips on when rate increases will hit.
If traders believe that less vocal policymakers will support Fed Chair Janet Yellen's expressed go-slow approach to raising interest rates, they may bid up stocks further.
Most Wall Street Fed watchers expect an interest rate hike in June. Yellen has indicated she would not want to raise rates unless data, such as increasing inflation, proved such a move timely.
"If it comes out more dovish, you've got to suspect that the equity markets would really like it," said Jeff Weniger, senior strategist at BMO Private Bank. Should the minutes show real caution by other Fed policymakers, energy, gold, emerging markets and materials could benefit the most, Weniger said.
Equity markets could suffer if the Fed shows a more aggressive stance. Shares of banks and other financial companies, which have been damaged by low interest rates, could be the lone sector to win.
Investors may trade on even the subtlest of information next week as there is a paucity of big market-moving events. This week, Fed talk and the employment report helped markets rise; later in April, the start of the first-quarter corporate earnings reporting season likely will drive share prices.
The seven-week U.S. stock market rally could still have room to run and beat a record high set by the S&P 500 last May, in part because the Fed has walked back from an expectation of four interest rate hikes this year to two.
The S&P 500 would need to rise less than 3 percent to take out its record closing high.
Stock reacted positively to Chair Janet Yellen's cautious tone at the end of the Fed's mid-March meeting, with the benchmark S&P 500 moving into positive territory for the year.
A series of comments by other Fed members, however, sent the index back into the red just days later. Stocks resumed an upward trajectory when Yellen reiterated her intentions to "proceed cautiously" this week.
Eric Wiegand, senior portfolio manager at U.S. Bank's Private Client Reserve in New York, is one of the many who will be reading those minutes closely.
"Getting any color will continue to be very important and so will getting a sense of what type of dissent was present among voting members," he said.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Nick Zieminski)
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