Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. stocks fell a second day, following the biggest annual rally for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index in 16 years, as investors weighed comments from Federal Reserve officials on stimulus and the economy’s strength.
General Motors Co. fell 3.4 percent after December sales missed estimates. Sprint Corp. dropped 4.4 percent as Stifel Nicolaus & Co. downgraded the mobile-phone operator to sell from hold. FireEye Inc. soared 39 percent after acquiring Mandiant Corp. in a $1.05 billion deal that consolidates providers of services that protect computer networks against hackers and spies.
The S&P 500 dropped less than 1 point to 1,831.37 at 4 p.m. in New York. The Dow Jones Industrial Average advanced 28.64 points, or 0.2 percent, to 16,469.99. About 5.3 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, 11 percent below the 30-day average.
“Today is portfolio balancing and a little bargain hunting after the selloff yesterday,” Donald Selkin, who helps manage about $4 billion as the New York-based chief market strategist at National Securities Corp, said in a telephone interview. “There was no fundamental reason for the decline yesterday. Everyone was kind of stunned.”
The index’s drop on Jan. 2 snapped a streak of five straight gains on the first trading session of January, as investors sold shares following the best annual rally since 1998. The Dow average climbed 27 percent last year for its best performance since 1995.
The S&P 500 fluctuated today, erasing an earlier loss of as much as 0.2 percent after Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the headwinds that have held back the U.S. economy may be abating, leaving the country poised for faster growth. The gauge erased that gain in the final half hour of trading.
“The combination of financial healing, greater balance in the housing market, less fiscal restraint, and, of course, continued monetary policy accommodation bodes well for U.S. economic growth in coming quarters,” Bernanke said today in remarks prepared for a speech in Philadelphia. The chairman, who has led the central bank during its record quantitative-easing program, ends his eight-year tenure on Jan. 31.
Central bank officials said last month they will reduce their monthly purchases of assets to $75 billion from $85 billion starting this month, citing faster-than-estimated economic growth.
Bernanke said the decision to taper bond purchases “did not indicate any diminution of its commitment to maintain a highly accommodative monetary policy for as long as needed.”
“What he was trying to do is rationalize the decision, saying we did the right thing with the headwinds disappearing,” Selkin said. “The key here is the continued monetary policy accommodation, he’ll keep the Fed funds low and that’s what the market wanted to hear.”
Fed policy makers will continue to weigh stimulus reductions because improvements in the job market are meeting the central bank’s objectives, Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker said today at a Maryland Bankers Association forum in Baltimore.
“It made sense to initiate the process of bringing the program to a close,” Lacker said. “I expect further reductions in the pace of purchases to be under consideration at upcoming meetings.”
The Federal Open Market Committee, scheduled to meet Jan. 28-29, will probably reduce its purchases in $10 billion increments over the next seven meetings before ending them in December, according to a Bloomberg News survey of economists after the FOMC announced its tapering on Dec. 18. The Fed will release minutes from its last meeting on Jan. 8.
Fed Bank of Philadelphia President Charles Plosser, an opponent of bond purchases by the Fed, said central bankers may be too optimistic they can smoothly pull back accommodation.
“We like to believe that everything is going to be gradual, everything is going to be smooth, and everything is going to be hunky-dory,” Plosser said during a discussion at the Philadelphia conference. “History does suggest that the Fed, as an institution, is oftentimes late when it comes to tightening.”
Three rounds of stimulus have helped propel the S&P 500 higher by as much as 173 percent from a 12-year low in 2009. Equity returns will slow this year, Wall Street strategists forecast. The index will end 2014 at 1,950, according to the average of 20 estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That represents a 5.5 percent gain from the end of 2013.
Analysts estimate earnings for S&P 500 companies in the fourth quarter grew by 5.2 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Alcoa Inc. will unofficially begin the reporting season when it discloses results after the markets close on Jan. 9.
The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, the gauge of S&P 500 options known as the VIX, fell 3.3 percent to 13.76, halting a four-day rally. The gauge finished 2013 with a 24 percent drop, the largest decline since 2009.
Seven of 10 main S&P 500 groups retreated today. Phone companies dropped the most, losing 0.7 percent as a group. Verizon Communications Inc. slid 1.2 percent to $48.42 for the biggest retreat in the Dow.
T-Mobile US Inc. lost 3.3 percent to $32.28. AT&T Inc. is targeting customers of smaller rival T-Mobile by offering customers of the fourth largest U.S. carrier as much as $450 in credits for devices and services for each line they switch. AT&T fell 0.4 percent to $34.80.
Sprint dropped 4.4 percent to $9.94 after Stifel downgraded the company. The brokerage said Sprint would struggle to obtain regulatory approval for a merger with T-Mobile US.
General Motors declined 3.4 percent to $39.57. The carmaker reported December sales plunged 6.3 percent while analysts estimated on average sales would rise.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Automobiles & Components Index fell 0.8 percent as the biggest automakers in the U.S. market reported December sales that fell short of analysts’ estimates. Cold weather may have kept buyers from dealer lots at the end of the industry’s best year since 2007.
Micron Technology Inc. dropped 3.2 percent to $20.97 for a second day of losses. RBC Capital Markets LLC analyst Doug Freedman downgraded the chipmaker to sector perform from outperform, saying Micron’s valuation does not take risks enough into account. The stock rose 243 percent last year, the second- best performance in the S&P 500, and trades at 86 times reported earnings.
Exelon Corp. declined 2 percent to $26.62. Citigroup Inc. gave the shares a sell rating, while Bank of America Corp. downgraded them to underperform, which is similar to a sell rating, from neutral.
FireEye, which offers security for e-mail, files and websites, surged 39 percent to $57.02, the highest level since the shares began trading in September. A venture-capital firm set up by the Central Intelligence Agency invested in FireEye in 2009. Mandiant specializes in detecting malware and responding to incidents.
Delta Air Lines Inc. rose 5.5 percent to $29.23 for the biggest gain in the S&P 500. The airline carrier reported that a key revenue metric rose 10 percent in December over the same month a year prior. The company also said it expects to report more than $1 billion in operating cash flow from last month.
Sirius XM Holdings Inc. advanced 2 percent to $3.57 after Evercore Partners Inc. analyst Bryan Kraft raised the stock to overweight from equalweight.
--With assistance from Trista Kelley in London. Editor: Jeremy Herron