By Caroline Valetkevitch
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The S&P 500 ended a choppy session slightly higher on Wednesday, helped by a rise in financials after Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said it "makes sense" to gradually lift interest rates.
The S&P financials index <.SPSY> rose 0.8 percent, adding to gains late in the session following Yellen's remarks to the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco.
Financials have rallied since the November U.S. election on expectations of higher rates and of reduced regulations under President-elect Donald Trump.
Goldman Sachs <GS.N> was down 0.6 percent and Citigroup <C.N> fell 1.7 percent, however. Both reported quarterly results earlier in the day.
The Dow ended lower for the fourth day in a row. The frenetic post-election rally in U.S. equities has slowed in recent weeks as investors wait for Trump to work on his campaign promises. Investors hope to get more insight following his inauguration on Friday.
"You might see people taking a break here and moving to the sidelines just to see what type of shape the environment takes as far as policy," said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average <.DJI> closed down 22.05 points, or 0.11 percent, to 19,804.72, the S&P 500 <.SPX> gained 4 points, or 0.18 percent, to 2,271.89 and the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> added 16.93 points, or 0.31 percent, to 5,555.65.
Qualcomm <QCOM.O> rose 1.5 percent, helping boost the Nasdaq after Morgan Stanley said in a note the U.S. government may be reluctant to pursue an antitrust case against the company.
After the bell, shares of Netflix <NFLX.O> jumped 8 percent following its results, which showed international and U.S. subscriber additions well above analysts' estimates.
The pace of corporate results is expected to pick in the coming days. Analysts expect earnings from S&P 500 companies grew 6.3 percent in the fourth quarter, which would be the biggest profit growth for the group in two years, according to Thomson Reuters data.
During the regular session, shares of Target <TGT.N> fell 5.8 percent after the brick-and-mortar chain reported dismal results for the holiday season and cut its quarterly earnings forecast. The S&P retail index <.SPXRT> was down 0.4 percent.
Among other decliners, UnitedHealth <UNH.N> was off 1.8 percent at $157.74 a day after reporting results.
Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 1.15-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.28-to-1 ratio favored advancers.
The S&P 500 posted 13 new 52-week highs and four new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 76 new highs and 27 new lows.
About 6.2 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, slightly above the 6.1 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.
(Editing by Andrew Hay and James Dalgleish)