Wall Street steady after Yellen signals rate hike this month

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U.S. stocks were flat on Friday afternoon after Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said the central bank is set to raise interest rates this month if economic data holds up. Financials, which benefit from higher rates, moved higher after her comments and were the best-performing S&P 500 sector. The financials index was up 0.5 percent. Strategists said Yellen's comments, which came after several of her U.S. central bank colleagues in recent days also put a rise this month firmly in view, likely cement a rate hike at the Fed's March 14-15 meeting. Yellen, in prepared remarks to a business luncheon in Chicago, also said rates are likely to rise faster this year, as the economy appears clear of any imminent hurdles at home or abroad for the first time in her tenure. "She's telegraphed that March is not 'live' anymore, it is 'alive.' She's been telegraphing to the market that she wants to continue the normalization process, that she does not want to be behind the curve," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 7.3 points, or 0.03 percent, to 20,995.67, the S&P 500 had lost 1.76 points, or 0.07 percent, to 2,380.16 and the Nasdaq Composite had dropped 2.24 points, or 0.04 percent, to 5,858.98. Brian Jacobsen, chief portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, said it's unlikely next week's February payrolls report will derail this month's rate hike expectations. The Labor Department is scheduled to release its monthly non-farm payrolls report on March 10.

Investors expected Yellen to signal a rate hike after a large number of Fed officials, including those typically dovish on rates, appeared this week to stoke expectations of a rate increase. Traders now have priced in an 82-percent chance of a hike during the March 14-15 policy-setting meeting, according to Thomson Reuters data. Those chances were roughly 75 percent before her comments and 30 percent at the start of the week.

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