After a slow start this morning, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) pushed into positive territory around midday before falling back on comments from the Federal Reserve. The blue chips finished the session down 21 points, or 0.2%.
The late afternoon slide came following the release of the minutes of the Fed's Open Market Committee meeting a few weeks ago, which revealed that there was some concern about overstimulating the economy after the Fed's extension of a bond-buying program in December. According to the notes:
Several others (Fed members) thought that it would probably be appropriate to slow or to stop purchases well before the end of 2013, citing concerns about financial stability or the size of the balance sheet.
Markets have been very sensitive to the Fed's actions during the recovery, so any decision to back away from stimulus measures is likely to send investors running. The notes are not a policy decision, of course, but this is the first time during the recovery that we've heard the Fed indicate that it may be overplaying its hand.
Elsewhere, the ADP employment report showed 215,000 private-sector jobs were added in December, well ahead of expectations of 140,000. Initial unemployment claims, however, ticked up to 372,000, from 362,000 the week before. Tomorrow, we'll get the official jobs report from the Labor Department. Economists are estimating a gain of 150,000 jobs in December, and the unemployment rate to remain at 7.7%. December auto sales were also healthy, reaching 1.3 million, 10% above the mark a year ago.
On the Dow today, UnitedHealth (NYSE:UNH) fell sharply. After missing out on much of yesterday's rally, the insurer tumbled 4.7%, as concerns about the new health-care law appear to be weighing on the stock. Many of its peers fell around 2%, as well. UnitedHealth got hit particularly hard as Deutsche Bank downgraded the stock from a buy to a hold, citing expected margin pressure from price competition in 2013.
On the other sign of the coin, drugmaker Merck (NYSE:MRK) jumped 2.4%, after announcing its combination tablet to lower cholesterol could be on the way to gaining FDA approval, as the agency said Merck's new drug application was complete for review. Merck, which submitted additional data in response to the FDA's rejection last year, has suffered a number of setbacks in its attempts to bring a new cholesterol drug to market.
Outside the Dow, Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) shares finished the day essentially unchanged, but scored a victory, as the Federal Trade Commission ruled it had not violated antitrust laws. Google had been accused by rivals such as Microsoft and Yelp of downplaying competitor results in its searches, but the FTC said the times when Google favors its own products in its searches were "not without legitimate justification." In a separate ruling, the commission found that Google had misused some of its patents in cell phone technology.
In other legal news, shares of Transocean (NYSE:RIG) jumped 6.4% in response to the company agreeing to a $1.4 billion settlement over its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The market apparently feared a more severe fine for the rig operator.
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Jeremy Bowman has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google and Transocean. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Google and UnitedHealth Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.