Stocks move up as investors await word from Bernanke

Associated Press file photo -- A worker helps frame a new home in March in Matthews, N.C. A rise in housing starts in a May report lifted market indexes Tuesday, but investors are still waiting for Wednesday's completion of a Federal Reserve meeting.
Associated Press file photo -- A worker helps frame a new home in March in Matthews, N.C. A rise in housing starts in a May report lifted market indexes Tuesday, but investors are still waiting for Wednesday's completion of a Federal Reserve meeting.

U.S. stocks moved higher Tuesday, helped by news of a pickup in home building and low inflation. But the Federal Reserve loomed large, with investors trying to guess what the central bank will say Wednesday about how long it plans to keep stimulus programs in place.

For many, the market was in a holding pattern as investors waited for Wednesday’s announcement.

The market’s gains were steady and broad. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 12.77 points, or 0.8 percent, to 1,651.81. All 10 of its sectors rose, led by industrial and telecommunications companies. The Russell 2000, an index of smaller companies, closed at a record high but fell just shy of the 1,000-point milestone.

Tuesday’s wait-and-see vibe came from a familiar template. The Fed has had an outsized effect on the stock market in recent weeks, with the major indexes getting yanked back and forth as investors try to guess how long the central bank will keep supporting the U.S. economy.

Some investors say it’s troubling that the market is relying more on the central bank for direction than economic fundamentals. The latest turning point was May 22, when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke startled markets by announcing that the central bank could soon pull back on its bond-buying program if the economy improves.

“Here we are again,” said Gregg Fisher, founder and chief investment officer of Gerstein Fisher, a financial advisory firm in New York. “We don’t know what the actions will be. We’re all trying to figure that out.”

“The game is different from what it used to be,” said Mark Spellman, portfolio manager for Value Line Funds, a mutual fund company in New York. “It’s not just, ‘Is the Fed going to raise (its benchmark interest rate) up or down?’ It’s ‘Is the Fed going to keep buying $85 billion worth of bonds each month?’ ”

Analysts predicted that Bernanke would use his Wednesday news conference to cast a reassuring tone and make it clear that the Fed won’t pull back on any of its programs until it’s sure the economy can handle it.

He’s also likely to drop more hints about when the Fed could start trimming its stimulus programs. Some said that recent market volatility hasn’t been caused by fear that the Fed will pull back on its stimulus programs — most everyone expects that to happen eventually. It’s more because investors don’t want to be surprised when it does.

The Commerce Department reported that the pace of new home building increased in May, helped by more buyers coming to the market and a scarcity of houses for sale. Investors described the report as good enough to send the market up, but not good enough for the Fed to think the economy is healthy enough to abruptly slash its stimulus efforts.

In other news:

HORMEL FOODS: The maker of Skippy peanut butter and Spam slipped after the company said it expects lower profits for the year. The stock fell $1.46, or 3.6 percent, to $39.19.

JACK IN THE BOX: The fast-food chain rose after announcing it will close some of the Qdoba Mexican Grill restaurants that it owns. Jack in the Box gained $1.82, or 4.9 percent, to $38.81.

SIGNET JEWELERS: The operator of the Kay Jewelers and Jared brands rose after announcing that it plans to buy back up to $350 million of its own stock. Signet rose $1.94, or 2.9 percent, to $69.91.