March 8, 2017 / 6:12 PM / 4 months ago

US STOCKS-Wall St flat as oil drop counters gain in bank stocks

4 Min Read

* Fed rate meeting on March 14-15

* Financials among top gainers; energy top drag

* U.S. crude prices hit 1-month low as inventories rise

* Dow down 0.09 pct, S&P flat, Nasdaq up 0.21 pct (Updates to early afternoon)

By Yashaswini Swamynathan

March 8 (Reuters) - The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average swung between losses and gains on Wednesday as gains in financials following a strong private sector hiring report were offset by declines in energy stocks.

The ADP National Employment report showed the U.S. private sector added 298,000 jobs last month, much bigger than the 190,000 estimated by economists on average.

The robust data sets the stage for Friday's nonfarm payrolls report, which includes private and public sector jobs and is seen as a barometer of the U.S. economy.

Traders now price in an 87.5 percent chance of a rate increase, up from 30 percent at the start of last week following hawkish comments from a host of Federal Reserve officials.

The S&P 500 financial index was up 0.63 percent, led by big banks such as Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

However, the gains were offset by the more than 3 percent decline in oil prices as U.S. crude inventories rose for the ninth straight week.

The S&P energy sector dropped 1.7 percent. Exxon and Chevron were the top drags on the S&P and the Dow.

Declines in high-dividend paying utilities and real estate sectors also weighed on the broader index.

The dollar gathered strength, while gold - which tends to lose value in a rising rates environment - was lower.

"Equities are at the crossroads of optimism and concern and are likely to go sideways until we get greater clarity from the Fed and legislative action," said Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management in Minneapolis.

Wall Street's main indexes are not far from all-time highs, driven by bets of pro-growth policies under President Donald Trump's administration.

However, sparse details on his plans have tempered the rally and have raised concerns on valuations.

"I think to a degree, equities are priced to perfection and there are several indicators that point to caution," Sandven said.

The S&P 500 is trading at about 18 times forward earnings estimates against the long-term average of about 15 times, according to Thomson Reuters data.

At 12:29 p.m. ET (1729 GMT), the Dow was down 18.69 points, or 0.09 percent, at 20,906.07, the S&P 500 was down 0.08 points, or flat, at 2,368.31.

The Nasdaq Composite was up 12.24 points, or 0.21 percent, at 5,846.17, propped up by health and technology stocks.

Caterpillar fell 1.6 percent after the New York Times said it reviewed a report commissioned by the U.S. government that accused the heavy equipment maker of carrying out tax and accounting fraud.

Urban Outfitters was the biggest percentage loser on the S&P, with a 4.8 percent decline following a sales miss that prompted William Blair to downgrade the stock and other brokerages to cut price targets.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers on the NYSE by 1,840 to 1,050. On the Nasdaq, 1,455 issues rose and 1,270 fell.

The S&P 500 index showed 13 new 52-week highs and 10 new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 49 new highs and 36 new lows. (Reporting by Yashaswini Swamynathan in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)

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