Stocks mostly muted ahead of jobs data, rate hikes

STORY: Wall Street’s main indexes closed flat to slightly up on Wednesday, as investors grappled with mixed messages from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell.

The Dow shed two-tenths of a point, the S&P 500 edged up about one-tenth and the Nasdaq gained four-tenths of a point.

In his second day of testimony to Congress, Powell reaffirmed his message from a day earlier that higher interest rate hikes for longer might be needed to tame inflation. But, he said the debate was still underway on how much rates should rise, with a decision hinging on jobs and price data that will come out before the central bank's policy meeting in two weeks.

“I don’t even think Jerome Powell knows if he’s doing 25 basis points, or 50….”

Eric Diton, president of The Wealth Alliance, says the Fed’s data-dependent nature can lead to flip-flopping on policy.

“You know economies, they don't just move in lock step. There are bumps and declines and everything along the way - and surprises. And so, if you're going to be completely data dependent, you're going to have curveballs and you're going to have to keep changing your mind. And I think that's what's happening right now.”

Data released on Wednesday did little to ease concerns about higher rates as it showed that U.S. private payrolls increased more than expected in February… with another report showing U.S. job openings fell less than expected the month before.

Investors will turn next to Friday's non-farm payroll report and next week's inflation readings for February.

As for the day’s movers, Tesla slid 3% after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was opening a preliminary investigation into 120,000 Model Y 2023 vehicles following reports about steering wheels falling off while driving.

Occidental Petroleum gained 2% after Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway increased its stake in the oil company.

And late in the day, crypto-focused bank Silvergate Capital said it planned to wind down operations and voluntarily liquidate. The stock less than a year ago was $162 a share — and finished Wednesday below 5 dollars.