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Wall Street ends down on nagging uncertainty about Fed rate path

(Reuters) - U.S. stocks ended lower on Wednesday, reversing gains after comments by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell left investors wondering what the U.S. central bank's next move would be with interest rate hikes.

Indexes initially held onto gains following the Fed's statement. It increased interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point, as expected, and signaled it could pause further hikes.

The unanimous decision lifted the U.S. central bank's benchmark overnight interest rate to the 5.00%-5.25% range, the 10th consecutive increase since March 2022.

Stocks started to swoon after the press conference following the statement. Powell said the Fed still views inflation as too high, and said it was too soon to say the rate hike cycle is over.

"The Fed continues to walk the tightrope, and that is they're trying to strike a balance between their inflation fighting credibility while trying to engineer a soft landing," said Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street (NYSE:STT) Global Advisors in Boston.

All of the major S&P 500 sectors ended lower, with energy and financials down the most. The KBW regional banking index was down 0.9%, extending this week's sharp losses.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 270.29 points, or 0.8%, to 33,414.24, the S&P 500 lost 28.83 points, or 0.70%, to 4,090.75 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 55.18 points, or 0.46%, to 12,025.33.

Heading into the session, investors had been anxious for any signals from the U.S. central bank on whether Wednesday's increase would be the last hike for now.

"Anybody that was hoping for an inclination toward that scenario, it doesn't sound like they're getting that," said Alan Lancz, president of Alan B. Lancz & Associates Inc., an investment advisory firm based in Toledo, Ohio. "It's inconclusive."

Investors worry that higher rates will eventually tip the economy into recession.

Earlier, data showed U.S. private employers boosted hiring in April, but showed signs the labor market was slowing following several rate hikes.

A separate report showed U.S. services sector maintained a steady pace of growth in April, but higher input prices indicated inflation could remain elevated for some time.

Advanced Micro Devices (NASDAQ:AMD) shares fell 9.3% after the chipmaker forecast quarterly sales below estimates due to a weak PC market.

Volume on U.S. exchanges was 12.03 billion shares, compared with the 10.51 billion average for the full session over the last 20 trading days.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 1.44-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.00-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 24 new 52-week highs and 12 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 64 new highs and 266 new lows.

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