Stocks lower ahead of Fed statement

U.S. stocks opened lower on Wednesday as investors awaited signals on the timing of an interest rate hike from the Fed statement and press conference expected in the afternoon.

“Everything all comes to a crescendo today at 2 o’clock,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities. “This is probably the most anticipated word change in the history of the Federal Reserve.”

The Federal Open Market Committee is scheduled to conclude its two-day meeting on Wednesday, with investors watching to see if “patient” remains in the statement or not. The highly anticipated statement is expected at 2 p.m. EDT and a press conference at 2:30 p.m.

“I truly believe the message is going to be that ‘patient’ isn’t in the statement so that gives us some optionality over the net few months,” he said. “We typically get a knee-jerk reaction. More times than not the first reaction is wrong.”

Read More Patient or not? Fed suspense peaking

He expects an initial negative reaction before the implications of the Fed statement are fully digested and markets close higher.

“Any overreaction should be reversed very quickly,” said Doug Cote, chief market strategist at Voya Investment Management. He expects the Federal Reserve to remove “patient” from its statement but lower its rate forecast by 25 basis points, following a similar decrease in December.

“They’re going to signal to markets the path of rate increase is going to be slower,” Cote said.

Investors will also watch to see if the stronger U.S. dollar figures into the Fed statement . The dollar continued to hold at highs, while the euro traded below $1.06.

Oil extended declines ahead of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s weekly inventory report at 10:30 a.m., with crude just above $42 a barrel and crude under $53 a barrel.

“In the near term it’s easy to read (strong dollar, low oil) as a negative,” said Maris Ogg, president of Tower Bridge Advisors. “I think we’re going to waffle around until we see some uncertainty resolve.”

Read More US rate-storm brews, get set for another ‘tantrum’

In more housing news, weekly mortgage applications fell 3.9 percent despite the drop in interest rates, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported.

The U.S. 10-year Treasury yield fell to trade near 2.03 percent. The 2-year not yield was 0.67 percent.

DJIA Dow Jones Industrial Average 17767.81 -81.27 -0.46%
S&P 500 S&P 500 Index 2066.35 -7.93 -0.38%
NASDAQ Nasdaq Composite Index 4918.29 -19.15 -0.39%

FedEx posted earnings that beat on revenue that was slightly below estimates. The company’s full-year guidance was also slightly lower than expected, but its commentary was generally upbeat and analysts have pointed out that FedEx guidance tends to be on the conservative side.

General Mills reported adjusted quarterly profit of 70 cents per share, 3 cents above estimates, with revenue also beating Street consensus. The cereal maker and food producer said it expects to continue “strong growth” during the current quarter.

Williams-Sonoma, Guess and Cintas are all due to report after the bell.

Alibaba‘s share lock-up expires on Wednesday, allowing the Chinese e-commerce and web conglomerate to sell up to 437 million of its shares.

Apple is scheduled to replace AT&T in the Dow Jones industrial average on Wednesday after the bell, as Visa implements a 4-for-1 stock split.

American Airlines will replace Allergan in the S&P 500 after the close of trading on March 20. Allergan is in the process of being purchased by Actavis.

Last week, Skyworks Solutions replaced PetSmart in the index on BC Partner’s acquisition of the pet supplies retailer.

In Europe, stocks were mixed as investors awaited the outcome of the Fed’s meeting.

For U.K. investors, the annual U.K. Budget statement is due to be presented by the country’s finance minister, George Osborne, and will be keenly watched as it comes ahead of May’s general election.

In the software market:

Oracle —The business software maker reported in-line quarterly profit of an adjusted 68 cents per share, although revenue fell below Street estimates. Oracle also raised its quarterly dividend by 25 percent to 15 cents per share.

Adobe Systems —The software firm reported an adjusted quarterly profit of 44 cents per share, beating estimates by 5 cents, while revenue was slightly above forecasts. Adobe did see a less-than-expected increase in subscribers to its Adobe Cloud service, although that was still 28 percent above a year ago.

Read More Early movers: FDX, GIS, ORCL, MSFT, HLF & more

Microsoft—A blog post by Microsoft EVP Terry Myerson said Windows 10 will be available to consumers “this summer.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened down 80 points, or 0.44 percent, at 17,769, with Wal-Mart the greatest laggard and AT&T leading three blue chips higher.

The S&P 500 opened down 7 points, or 0.35 percent, at 2,067, with materials leading nine sectors lower and telecoms the only sector advancing.

The Nasdaq opened down 13 points, or 0.26 percent, at 4,925.

Two shares declined for every advancer on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 40 million and a composite volume of 80 million in the open.

Crude oil futures fell $1.17 to $42.30 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Gold futures fell 10 cents to $,1,148 an ounce.

U.S. stocks closed mostly lower on Tuesday as investors focused on the outcome of the Fed meeting. The Dow was off triple digits and only the Nasdaq in the black.

As of Tuesday’s close:

  • The Dow Jones industrial average was within half a standard deviation above its 50-day moving average. Since 1981 the index has been in this position 4.66 percent of all trading days, according to quantitative analytics tool Kensho. The probability of the index moving lower is 46.6 percent and the probability of it moving higher in the days following is 53.4 percent.
  • The S&P 500 was within half a standard deviation above its 50-day moving average. Since 1980 the index has been in this position 5.23 percent of all trading days, according to Kensho. The probability of the index moving higher in the days following is 51.3 percent and the probability of it moving lower is 48.7 percent.
  • The Nasdaq composite was within 1.5 standard deviations above its 50-day moving average. Since 1980 the index has been in this position 7.41 percent of all trading days, according to Kensho. The probability of the index moving lower is 61.9 percent and the probability of it moving higher is 38.1 percent.

CNBC’s Peter Schacknow contributed to this report.

Disclosure: CNBC’s parent NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Kensho.

On tap this week:


Earnings: Williams-Sonoma, Herman Miller, Guess, Renren, Silver Wheaton, Jabil Circuit

10:30 am: EIA oil inventory data

2:00 pm: Fed statement

2:30 pm: Fed Chair Janet Yellen press briefing


Earnings: Nike, Lennar, Vince Holding

8:30 am: Initial claims

8:30 am: Current account Q4

10:00 am: Philadelphia Fed survey


Earnings: KB Home, Darden Restaurants, Tiffany