Wall Street hits 'pause' after two-day surge

May 26, 2016 7:29 AM EDT

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S., May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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By Noel Randewich

(Reuters) - Wall Street treaded water on Thursday following two days of strong gains as advancing utilities offset declines in materials, banks and other cyclical industries.

Investors this week have grown more comfortable with expectations the Federal Reserve could raise interest rates as soon as June, with many taking the view that such a hike would reflect improvement in the country's economy.

After gaining 2 percent over the previous two sessions, the S&P 500 traded flat, with a 1.1 percent dip in the materials index <.SPLRCM> partly offset by a 1.06 percent rise in utilities <.SPLRCU>.

"People are taking their foot off the gas after making a bunch of money, and now they're waiting for the next data point," said Phil Blancato, chief executive of Ladenburg Thalmann Asset Management in New York.

In line with other policymakers who have spoken in recent days, Fed Governor Jerome Powell said a rate hike may come "fairly soon" if data confirms the U.S. economy is continuing to grow and labor markets are still tightening.

Data showed that while orders for U.S. durable goods surged in April, business spending plans continued to show signs of weakness, suggesting the manufacturing rout was far from over.

Trading near 16.5 times expected earnings, the S&P 500 appears fairly priced, said Michael Mussio, managing director with FBB Capital Partners. "We’re not expecting any significant increase in earnings for the S&P 500 this year compared to last year," he said.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dipped 23.22 points, or 0.13 percent, to end at 17,828.29 points and the S&P 500 <.SPX> edged down 0.44 points, or 0.02 percent, to 2,090.1.

The Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> added 6.88 points, or 0.14 percent, to 4,901.77.

Muted volume suggested that some investors had already checked out ahead of an upcoming long weekend, with U.S. stock markets closed on Monday for the Memorial Day holiday.

Just 5.8 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, well below the 7.2 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) shares rose 0.79 percent, providing the largest boost to the S&P 500, while Citigroup (NYSE: C) fell 1.77 percent, weighing most on the index. Discount retailers Dollar General (NYSE: DG) rose over 4 percent and Dollar Tree (NASDAQ: DLTR) rallied nearly 13 percent, both hitting record highs after reporting better-than-expected quarterly profits.

Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF) shares slumped 15.67 percent after the retailer posted its 13th straight quarter of sales declines.

Costco Wholesale (NASDAQ: COST) rose 3.58 percent a day after posting quarterly earnings.

In extended trade, GameStop (NYSE: GME) tumbled 7 percent after the videogame retailer reported a decline in quarterly revenue.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,552 to 1,449, while on the Nasdaq, 1,507 issues fell and 1,269 advanced.

The S&P 500 posted 22 new 52-week highs and 1 new low; the Nasdaq recorded 55 new highs and 26 new lows.

(Additional reporting by Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Dan Grebler and Nick Zieminski)

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