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S&P 500 erases loss as investors weigh economy, Ukraine crisis

Stock prices traded in a narrow range Wednesday ahead of reports on employment and retail sales.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 11.17 points to 16,340.08. However, the Nasdaq composite index rose 16.14 points to 4,323.33 and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index eked out a gain of 0.57 points to 1,868.20.

Reports on retail sales in February and initial claims for jobless benefits in the past week will be released before the start of trading Thursday.

Gold rose to the highest price in six months, up $23.80 to $1,370.50 an ounce. However, oil fell $2.04 to $97.99 a barrel after a report showing a big increase in crude inventories.

“We saw a pretty healthy sell-off based on China slowdown fears and potential Russian expansion,” said Walter “Bucky” Hellwig, who helps manage $17 billion at BB&T Wealth Management in Birmingham, Ala. “The concerns of what’s going on are still on the minds of investors and they’re putting money into safe haven assets like U.S. Treasurys and gold. On the other hand, we’re seeing stocks aren’t completely out of the picture.”

U.S. stocks declined 0.5 percent Tuesday as commodity shares slumped with copper and oil prices amid concern over China’s economy. China announced an economic growth target of 7.5 percent last week, the weakest since 1990, and had its first onshore bond default after a solar-panel maker failed to make an interest payment.

The nation, the biggest consumer of everything from copper to soybeans, is scheduled to release industrial output data Thursday after reports over the weekend showed the steepest drop in exports since 2009.

Ukraine warned that Russia is amassing troops near its border as Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited Washington, D.C., to step up the search for financial aid.

Yatsenyuk met President Barack Obama on Wednesday, and addresses the United Nations Security Council in New York on Thursday.

Russia’s takeover of Crimea, home to its Black Sea Fleet, has sparked the worst crisis with the West since the Cold War, as the European Union and the United States try to use sanctions to force President Vladimir Putin to retreat.

Obama’s invitation comes as Crimeans prepare to vote in a March 16 referendum that may result in the autonomous region joining Russia.

“Investors are keeping an eye on what’s happening with Ukraine and Russia,” said Christian Zogg, who manages about $540 million as head of equity and fixed income at LLB Asset Management AG in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. “After the good fourth-quarter earnings season, the positive sentiment is slowly but surely priced in.”

About 70 percent of S&P 500 companies that reported earnings for the latest quarter beat analysts’ profit estimates, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The S&P 500 has gained 1.1 percent this year, reaching a record close Friday, after Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen said the U.S. economy was strong enough to withstand measured reductions to the central bank’s monthly bond purchases.

Three rounds of Fed stimulus have helped push the S&P 500 up 176 percent from a 12-year low, as U.S. equities begin the sixth year of a bull market that started March 9, 2009.

The Federal Open Market Committee, which meets March next week, has cut monthly bond buying to $65 billion from $85 billion in December. Policymakers have indicated they plan to taper by $10 billion at each meeting absent a weakening in the economy.

The Fed is trying to determine how much of recent economic cooling has been due to weather. The government’s monthly jobs report last week showed U.S. employers added more workers than estimated in February.

More than three-quarters of Americans say the bull market has had little or no effect on their financial well-being, according to a Bloomberg National Poll.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents dismissed the S&P 500’s gains since the financial crisis, according to the poll, taken March 7 to 10. Barely one in five — 21 percent — said the market’s gains have made them “feel more financially” secure.

Investors have added $12.8 billion to U.S. equity exchange-traded funds in the past five days and withdrawn $2.4 billion from bond ETFs, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Real-estate stocks absorbed the most money among industry ETFs, taking in $156 million during the past week.

— Bloomberg contributed to this report.

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