Stocks were little changed Wednesday morning, as the major market benchmarks stayed close to the unchanged mark while investors wait for the latest word from the Federal Open Market Committee. As of 11 a.m. EDT, the Dow Jones Industrials (^DJI 0.41%) were up 14 points. With an announcement expected this afternoon, most analysts anticipate further tapering of the Fed's quantitative easing program, confirming the slow but steady economic recovery that has kept investors happy for years. UnitedHealth (UNH 1.29%) was the biggest gainer in the Dow this morning, rising 1.9%. But from a longer-term standpoint, one big question facing the market is whether JPMorgan Chase (JPM -1.52%), Goldman Sachs (GS -0.72%), and other financial stocks are truly ready for tapering to continue.
UnitedHealth's rise comes as the last days tick away before the March 31 deadline for Americans to get health insurance under Obamacare or face penalties for not having qualified coverage for at least nine months of 2014. Obamacare enrollment figures have thus far continued to fall short of early optimistic assessments, but a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that any concerns about added competition coming from the Affordable Care Act have largely been unwarranted. According to the report, existing players in the industry have largely protected their market share, although WellPoint (ELV 2.33%) reportedly lost ground in some key states such as New York and California. At this point, all the uncertainty over Obamacare points to the wisdom of UnitedHealth's more conservative strategy of easing into the health insurance exchanges rather than making an all-out push.
While the Fed doesn't necessarily have a big direct impact on UnitedHealth, it definitely is more important for JPMorgan and Goldman. Both institutions have direct exposure from the central bank's monetary policy initiatives, as well as extensive related risk from the market movements that can follow Fed decisions. The big banks find themselves in an awkward position, though, as they navigate a changing regulatory environment while still facing negative public opinion. For instance, JPMorgan today announced a $3.5 billion deal to sell its physical commodities business after getting scrutiny from regulators questioning whether big banks should have a major presence in commodities trading. Similarly, both Goldman and JPMorgan are faced with the prospect of a tax on large banks proposed by a usually bank-friendly Republican Party. Although the 0.035% amount of the tax might seem minuscule, the fact that it applies to all assets above $500 billion shows the extent to which the government and the American public still want payback from the financial crisis.
The Fed's decision could have a big impact not just on Goldman and JPMorgan, but on the entire stock market. But even though the banks are ready for whatever the Fed decides, JPMorgan and Goldman investors need to consider the headwinds they'll face from regulatory behavior and public opinion.