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By Sinead Carew
(Reuters) - The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones industrial average indexes ended Wednesday's session with small gains as expectations for timing on a rate hike were largely unchanged after U.S. Federal Reserve minutes and investors waited on earnings reports.
Several voting policymakers judged a rate hike would be warranted "relatively soon" if the U.S. economy continued to strengthen, according to minutes from the September policy meeting released Wednesday afternoon.
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While keeping rates low has risks, the Fed decided it was more risky to raise rates when they are concerned we might be seeing a slowdown in economic growth, said Kate Warne, investment strategist at Edward Jones in St. Louis.
"Unfortunately, they also didn’t provide a lot of clarity,” Warne said.
Traders have priced in small odds of a rate increase next month as the meeting falls days ahead of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. The odds were still in favor of a December move, but down to 66 percent from 71 percent the day before, according to CME Group's FedWatch tool.
With little news from the Fed, investors will see what earnings look like before they buy more stocks, said Steve Massocca, Chief Investment Officer, Wedbush Equity Management LLC in San Francisco.
Overall, S&P 500 third-quarter earnings are currently expected to fall 0.7 percent, marking the fifth quarter of negative earnings in a row, according to Thomson Reuters data.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> rose 15.54 points, or 0.09 percent, to 18,144.2, the S&P 500 <.SPX> gained 2.45 points, or 0.11 percent, to 2,139.18 and the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> dipped 7.77 points, or 0.15 percent, to 5,239.02.
The biggest weight on Nasdaq was Cisco Systems <CSCO.O>, which fell after rival Ericsson <ERIC.O> <ERICb.ST> reported a huge profit decline
Eight of the 11 major S&P 500 indexes closed higher, led by real estate's <.SPLRCR> 1.3-percent rise and a 1 percent increase in utilities <.SPLRCU>.
Investors in both yield-sensitive sectors may have feared a more hawkish Fed, according to Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments LLC in Lisle, Illinois.
Healthcare and energy were the weakest sectors with an 0.55 percent decline in the S&P 500 healthcare index <.SPXHC> and an 0.41 percent decline for energy <.SPNY> percent. Oil prices fell after OPEC reported its September output at eight-year highs.
Humana Inc <HUM.N> was the biggest loser on the S&P. The insurer said a U.S. government health department cut its quality rating on Humana Medicare plans, a move that could affect how much the government pays it in 2018. Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 1.10-to-1 ratio.
About 5.6 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 6.77 billion daily average over the last 20 sessions.
(additional reporting by Yashaswini Swamynathan in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D'Silva and Nick Zieminski)