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U.S. relatively flat, leveling off following massive rally to open March


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Investing.com -- U.S. stocks were relatively flat on Wednesday, leveling off from a massive rally on the opening session of the month, as gains in the energy sector offset declines in materials and consumer services.

Investors also digested solid employment figures from the ADP Research Institute on Wednesday morning, ahead of a critical U.S. jobs report on Friday. For the month of February, ADP said non-farm private employment rose by 214,000, last month topping expectations for gains of 190,000. The monthly report from the U.S. Department of Labor is expected to show a sight increase in the Labor Force Participation Rate and steady unemployment at 4.9%, one month after the rate fell to its lowest level in eight years. A robust report could compel the Federal Reserve to accelerate its pace of tightening when it convenes for a two-day meeting on March 15-16.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average added 34.24 or 0.20% to 16,899.32, extending gains from Tuesday's session when it surged nearly 350 points to exit correction territory. The Dow ended February as the only major index to close higher for the month, continuing its rally from a disastrous start to the year. The NASDAQ Composite index gained 13.82 or 0.29% to 4,7-3.42, while the S&P 500 Composite index ticked up 8.10 or 0.41% to close at 1,986.45. For the session, eight of 10 sectors closed higher led by strong performances from the energy and telecommunications industries. At one point on Wednesday, telecommunications stocks reached their highest level in 18 months.

The top performer on the Dow was Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM), which gained 1.42 or 1.75% to 82.70. ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) finished just ahead of IBM (NYSE:IBM), which added 1.93 or 1.44% to 136.30. IBM continues to rebound following market-moving comments from billionaire investor Warren Buffett at the start of the week. Buffet, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway B (NYSE:BRKb), told CNBC that he planned to hold onto his 8.59% stake in the company in spite of a $2.6 billion loss at the end of 2015. The worst performer was EI du Pont de Nemours and Company (NYSE:DD), which lost 0.79 or 1.26% to 62.15. DuPont (NYSE:DD) finished just below Nike Inc (NYSE:NKE), which fell 0.70 or 1.11% to 62.22, two days after the release of a new Kevlar shoe that will be worn by Oklahoma City Thunder star forward Kevin Durant during the NBA Playoffs.

The biggest gainer on the NASDAQ was Micron Technology Inc (NASDAQ:MU), which added 0.61 or 5.51% to 11.68, bolstered by heavy short covering. Over the last 52 weeks, shares in Micron have plunged more than 65% as the Idaho-based semiconductor has projected a possible loss for the quarter amid expectations for potential cost increases. The worst performer was Dollar Tree Inc (NASDAQ:DLTR), which lost 3.26 or 3.97% to 78.77, after the discount variety store chain offered a downbeat forward guidance for same-store sales in 2016.

The top performer on the S&P 500 was Chesapeake Energy Corporation (NYSE:CHK), which surged 0.64 or 23.19% to 3.40. Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) held onto gains late in the session after reports surfaced that former CEO Aubrey McClendon passed away on Wednesday morning in a one-car crash outside Oklahoma City. It came one day after McClendon was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for his involvement in a bid rigging scandal related to the leasing of oil rigs and a series of land deals. McClendon was killed when his 2013 Chevrolet Tahoe hit a concrete embankment at a high rate of speed causing the vehicle to immediately burst into flames, a spokesman from the Oklahoma City Police Department said.

"Chesapeake Energy is deeply saddened by the news we heard today, our thoughts and prayers are with the McClendon family," the company told CNBC.

The worst performer was Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON), after the world's largest corn seller lowered its second quarter guidance amid continuing signs of weakness in the agricultural sector due to lower crop prices. Shares in Monsanto (NYSE:MON) fell 7.19 or 7.77% to 85.30.

On the New York Stock Exchange, declining issues outnumbered advancing ones by a 2,003-1,004 margin.

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