Stocks mostly lower ahead of Fed policy statement

Stocks mostly fell early Wednesday ahead of a statement on interest rates from the Federal Reserve and a news conference by its chairman.

Traders also fretted about Greece’s slow progress in talks with private bondholders aimed at reducing the nation’s crushing debt load.

Tech stocks rose, bucking the wider market, after consumer electronics giant Apple Inc. reported a best-ever quarter driven by strong sales of iPhones and iPads.

Apple’s stock jumped 6.8 percent, helping lift the Nasdaq composite index 4 points to 2,790. The Nasdaq is up 7.1 percent this year, more than twice the gain for the Dow Jones industrial average.

The Dow fell 80 points, or 0.6 percent, to 12,595 in the first half-hour of trading. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 6, or 0.5 percent, to 1,308. Information technology was the only rising sector of the ten in the S&P 500.

Shortly after noon, the Fed will offer details about how long it plans to keep interest rates very low, an important issue for financial companies that lend to consumers and businesses. Access to credit is vital for the economic recovery. Low interest rates also encourage investment in stocks by reducing the returns traders can earn from many bonds.

The Fed will also release an economic forecast later Wednesday, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will take questions from reporters in his quarterly news conference.

European markets retreated earlier as Greece’s bondholders held a closed-door meeting to discuss whether they will continue to negotiate with the crisis-stricken nation.

Greece wants the investors, mostly banks and hedge funds, to voluntarily write off about half of its debt. Otherwise, Greece will be unable to obtain needed bailout cash and will default. That could set off a financial crisis similar to the aftermath of Lehman Bros.’ failure in 2008.

The main stock indexes in France, Britain and Germany fell more than a half-percent. Borrowing costs for Italy, Spain and France increased, a sign of traders’ fears that the debt crisis will spread. Adding to gloom was a report that Britain’s economy shrank by 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter.

Apple’s gains followed news late Tuesday that it sold 37 million iPhones in its fiscal first quarter, the first period after the death of CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs. That was coupled with a big jump in iPad sales to 15.4 million, and a more modest increase in Mac sales.

Apple’s net income leapt 118 percent from the same quarter a year earlier. Revenue soared 73 percent. Both results blew the doors off Wall Street’s expectations.

Among the other companies making big moves after announcing earnings:

? US Airways Group Inc. jumped 13 percent and Delta Air Lines Inc. rose 9 percent. Both carriers reported earnings that were far better than Wall Street analysts expected. The airlines raised fares during the fourth quarter while keeping costs under control. Delta also cut the number of flights it makes to keep pace with demand.

? WellPoint Inc., the nation’s largest health care insurer based on enrollment, fell 5 percent. The company’s fourth-quarter earnings dropped 39 percent, far more than analysts had expected. The Indianapolis company’s full-year forecast also fell short of Wall Street’s forecasts. Medical claims, its largest expense, rose nearly 10 percent in the quarter.


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