By Rodrigo Campos
(Reuters) - U.S. stocks ended slightly higher following a choppy session Wednesday after the Federal Reserve said the U.S. economy is likely strong enough to withstand an interest rate hike later this year.
Even if a majority of Fed officials continue to see higher rates by the end of 2015, they expect rates to rise slightly less by the end of 2016 and 2017 than they did in their March forecasts.
That view on rates saw high-yielding stocks gain, with the S&P 500 utilities sector (.SPLRCU) up 0.9 percent after hitting on Tuesday its lowest since late September.
Stocks with higher dividend yields attract investors when there is an expectation that Treasury yields will fall, or in this case, remain relatively low.
"The Fed is talking about the labor market tightening somewhat, which seems to be a hint that it is a step closer to raising rates. At the same time, it seems like there was a notching down of the magnitude of rate hike expectations," said Nick Kalivas, senior equity product strategist at Invesco PowerShares in Downers Grove, Illinois.
"Those two things are what is causing stocks to go back and forth."
Major indexes were volatile following the Fed statement. Stocks initially added to losses, then hit session highs as Fed Chair Janet Yellen spoke to the media in a follow-up to the statement. They lost more than half the day's gains at the close.
The S&P 500 has hovered near the 2,100 level for more than a month as sentiment shifts between hopes for a stronger economy and fears of the effect of rising rates coupled with high valuations.
At the closing bell on Wednesday, the Dow Jones industrial average (.DJI) rose 31.26 points, or 0.17 percent, to 17,935.74, the S&P 500 (.SPX) gained 4.15 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,100.44 and the Nasdaq Composite (.IXIC) added 9.33 points, or 0.18 percent, to 5,064.88.
At its session high, the S&P had been up 0.5 percent.
Adding to support for equities, investors have seen the proximity of rising rates as a trigger for more M&A activity, with mergers and acquisitions already at record levels.
Away from the Fed, FedEx (FDX.N) fell 3 percent to $176.73 after the package delivery firm reported a quarterly net loss.
Oracle (ORCL.N) shares fell nearly 7 percent in after-hours trading after the enterprise software and computer hardware company missed revenue expectations.
During regular market hours, advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,606 to 1,446, for a 1.11-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,441 issues fell and 1,301 advanced for a 1.11-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.
The S&P 500 posted 22 new 52-week highs and 3 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 145 new highs and 34 new lows.
About 6.1 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 5.94 billion daily average so far this month, according to BATS Global Markets.
(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Nick Zieminski)