Markets flat as investors look to Fed

The Toronto stock market was flat Wednesday with the U.S. Federal Reserve in focus.The S&P/TSX composite index slipped 10.88 points to 11,999.02 as traders looked ahead to the afternoon release of the central bank’s latest survey of regional economic conditions while awaiting a key speech by Fed chairman Ben Bernanke on Friday.The TSX Venture Exchange was off 12.6 points to 1,229.27.The Canadian dollar was up 0.04 of a cent to 101.28 cents US despite lower prices for oil and metals.U.S. markets were little changed amid other data which showed that the second estimate of second-quarter gross domestic product showed the U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 1.7 per cent, up from the original reading of 1.5 per cent.Another report provided further evidence of a housing recovery as Americans signed the most contracts to buy homes in July than at any other point in the last two years. The National Association of Realtors’ index of sales agreements for previously occupied homes jumped 2.4 per cent in July to 101.7.The Dow Jones industrial average was 1.45 points lower to 13,101.54. The Nasdaq composite index was up 0.72 of a point at 3,077.86, and the S&P 500 index was ahead 0.75 of a point at 1,410.05.Markets have made minor moves this week ahead of Bernanke’s speech at the Fed’s annual retreat at Jackson Hole, Wyo. Expectations for another round of economic stimulus have risen over the past couple of weeks after the minutes from the Fed’s last interest rate meeting Aug. 1 showed more members wanting to see the central bank take more action to revive the economy.And then, last Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bernanke had written a Republican lawmaker to say there is more the Fed could do to help the economy.But those expectations have taken place against a background of steadily improving economic data, including better than expected job creation numbers, rising retail sales and more indications of an improving housing sector.Markets finished lower Tuesday in the wake of a report showing slipping consumer confidence over the summer prompted by employment worries.Still, there are doubts Bernanke would commit to more stimulus ahead of important data next week, including the latest snapshot of the manufacturing sector and the August non-farm payrolls report at the end of the week. The Fed holds its next interest rate announcement Sept. 13.The Federal Reserve releases its so-called Beige Book mid-afternoon Wednesday.“It should affirm that the expansion is proceeding at a modest to moderate pace, though its tone should improve somewhat from the July report given the recent pickup in activity,” said BMO Capital Markets senior economist Sal Guatieri.Financials led gainers a day after Bank of Montreal (TSX:BMO) and Scotiabank (TSX:BNS) delivered quarterly earnings reports which beat expectations. Royal Bank (TSX:RY), CIBC (TSX:CM), TD Bank (TSX:TD), National Bank (TSX:NA) post earnings results Thursday. Royal Bank gained 37 cents to $54.54.The base metals sector eased 0.65 per cent as copper prices also declined, down for a fourth session as September copper dropped two cents to US$3.45 a pound. Teck Resources (TSX:TCK) shed 37 cents to C$28.17.Utilities were also weak with TransAlta Corp. (TSX:TA) down 37 cents to $15.48.Crude prices were lower after finance ministers from the world’s leading industrialized economies called on oil producers to increase output and said they stood ready to ask the International Energy Agency to release strategic reserves.A statement released by the Group of Seven finance ministers said the ministers were concerned about the impact of rising oil prices on the global economy and were prepared to act. The October crude contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange was down 84 cents to US$95.49 a barrel.The energy sector pulled back 0.33 per cent and Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ) shed 14 cents to C$30.37.The gold sector was off 0.26 per cent as bullion fell $4.40 to US$1,665.30 an ounce. Barrick Gold Corp. (TSX:ABX) lost 44 cents to C$36.87.European markets were mixed as London’s FTSE 100 index moved down 0.24 per cent, Frankfurt’s DAX gained 0.23 per cent and the Paris CAC 40 was down 0.4 per cent.In corporate news, oil and gas producer Calgary-based Fairborne Energy Ltd. (TSX:FEL) is selling dry natural gas assets for a total of $189 million. Fairborne said depressed natural gas prices and volatility in capital markets have challenged its ability to fund growth. Its shares were down five cents at $1.44.Gildan Activewear Inc. chief executive Glenn Chamandy could earn more than $85 million after deciding to selling up to 28 per cent of his 9.8 million shares in the apparel company. The company founder will remain one of its largest shareholders with a 5.7 per cent stake once 2.75 million shares are sold in a period that will range up to 24 months. On Wednesday, Gildan shares were down 66 cents to $30.75.