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Wall Street steady after Yellen signals rate hike this month

By Caroline Valetkevitch

(Reuters) - The S&P 500 and Nasdaq closed out their sixth straight week of gains with a flat session after Janet Yellen signaled the Federal Reserve is set to raise interest rates this month if employment and other economic data hold up.

Strategists said the Fed Chair's comments likely cement a rate hike at the Fed's March 14-15 meeting.

Financial stocks, which benefit from higher rates, closed up 0.4 percent on Friday after Yellen's comments and were among the best-performing S&P 500 sectors, while real estate was the worst performer, down 0.4 percent.

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Yellen, in prepared remarks to a business lunch in Chicago, also said rates are likely to rise faster this year, as the economy appears clear of any imminent hurdles at home or abroad for the first time in her tenure.

"Equities can handle hikes when it's in the face of stronger growth," said Brian Jacobsen, chief portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

He said next week's February payrolls report is unlikely to derail rate hike expectations. The Labor Department is scheduled to release its February non-farm payrolls report on March 10.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 2.74 points, or 0.01 percent, to 21,005.71, the S&P 500 gained 1.2 points, or 0.05 percent, to 2,383.12 and the Nasdaq Composite added 9.53 points, or 0.16 percent, to 5,870.75.

For the week, the Dow was up 0.9 percent, the S&P 500 was up 0.7 percent and the Nasdaq was up 0.4 percent.

Investors expected Yellen to signal a rate hike after a large number of Fed officials, including those typically dovish on rates, appeared this week to stoke expectations of a rate increase.

Traders now have priced in about an 85-percent chance of a hike during the March 14-15 policy-setting meeting, according to Thomson Reuters data. Those chances stood at roughly 30 percent at the start of the week.

Costco was among the top drags on the S&P and the Nasdaq, falling 4.3 percent after quarterly sales and profit missed analysts' expectations.

Snap Inc, which rallied Thursday in its debut, jumped another 10.7 percent after NBCUniversal invested $500 million in the parent of Snapchat.

Macy's dropped 4.4 percent after sources said Canada's Hudson's Bay is yet to line up equity financing for a bid more than a month after making an approach.

About 6.7 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 6.9 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 1.05-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.03-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 10 new 52-week highs and 4 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 59 new highs and 43 new lows.

(Additional reporting by Rodrigo Campos, Yashaswini Swamynathan and Sweta Singh,; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila and Nick Zieminski)