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U.S. stocks mixed as investors consider Fed minutes

NEW YORK - Stocks remained mostly lower in afternoon trading Wednesday as investors reacted to a better-than-expected private jobs report as well as minutes from the Federal Reserve's December policy meeting.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 79 points, or 0.5 percent, to 16,451 as of 2:25 p.m. ET. The Dow was dragged lower by Chevron and McDonald's, both down nearly 2 percent. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell a point, or 0.1 percent, to 1,837 and the Nasdaq composite index rose 10 points, or 0.2 percent, to 4,163.

The big theme of the week is job news. A private survey showed U.S. businesses added the most jobs in a year in December, powered by a big gain in construction work. Payroll processor ADP said Wednesday that companies added 238,000 jobs in December, better than the 200,000 economists predicted. The ADP data sets the stage for Friday's government jobs report. Investors expect the U.S. economy created 190,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate remained steady at 7 percent.

The Federal Reserve released minutes from its mid-December meeting, when central bank officials surprised investors by voting to start pulling back on the bank's huge bond-buying program. A majority of Fed policymakers believed the recent jobs data and other signs of an improving economy were enough to merit a reduction in stimulus. The vote led to the decision to cut the Fed's bond-buying program from $85 billion a month to $75 billion beginning in January.

Big publicly traded companies will start reporting their quarterly financial results Thursday. Dow member Chevron reports after the closing bell Thursday as well as former Dow member Alcoa. Investors are going to be looking to see if the recent improvement in the U.S. economy has translated into higher earnings for corporate America.

"Investors are going to be looking for a pretty upbeat message from corporate America," said Alec Young, global equity strategist with S&P Capital IQ. The forecasts companies give about their earnings this year will be the most important pieces of information for the market over the next few weeks, he said.

Ford rose 24 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $15.62 after CEO Alan Mulally said he would not leave to run Microsoft. Mulally was considered a top candidate for the position, having led the turnaround for Ford turning the financial crisis.

Forest Labs was up $9.98, or 17 percent, to $68.74 after the company said it would buy Aptalis, which specializes in treatments for gastrointestinal problems and cystic fibrosis, for $2.9 billion in cash.

Retailer J.C. Penney dropped 63 cents, or 7 percent, to $7.56. The company issued a brief statement saying it was "pleased with its performance for the holiday period," but gave no specific sales data. The statement appeared to raise more questions for investors about the struggling retailer than it answered, however.

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