07/10/2013 08:20 EDT | Updated 09/09/2013 05:12 EDT

TSX edges up amid disappointing Chinese trade data, few surprises in Fed minutes

TORONTO - The Toronto stock market closed slightly higher Wednesday amid another sign of a slowing Chinese economy and little in the minutes from the latest U.S. Federal Reserve meeting to indicate when the central bank might move on relaxing its economic stimulus program.

The S&P/TSX composite index moved 9.84 points higher to 12,306.93.

The minutes echoed earlier remarks by Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, indicating that the Fed would likely slow its bond purchases later this year and end them around mid-2014 if the economy continued to strengthen.

"Not a great many surprises overall," observed CIBC World Markets senior economist Peter Buchanan.

"The committee also discussed the need to differentiate between the tapering of QE and actual rates hikes. Once again emphasizing that there will likely be a considerable time between the end of QE and the first increase in target yields."

In a speech late Wednesday, Bernanke said the economy has yet to fully recover from the 2008 financial crisis.

He told the National Bureau of Economic Research that there is still a need for the bond-buyback program, because unemployment remains high and inflation is below the Fed's target.

Bernanke also said the economy is also being held back by higher taxes and federal spending cuts.

"If you put all of that together, you can only conclude that highly accommodative monetary policy for the foreseeable future is what is needed for the U.S. economy," he said.

Bernanke's comments were his latest effort to stress that the Fed will continue to stimulate the economy, even after it begins to slow its bond purchases. The Fed plans to keep its investment holdings constant to avoid causing long-term rates to rise too quickly. It also plans to keep short-term rates at record lows at least until unemployment slides to 6.5

Unemployment is currently 7.6 per cent.

Meanwhile, the TSX got some lift from the energy sector with oil prices at a 15-month high.

Oil ran ahead $2.99 to US$106.52 a barrel, the highest close since late March, 2012 as the American Petroleum Institute said that U.S. crude inventories fell by nine million barrels last week, much higher than the 3.8-million-barrel drop that analysts had expected.

The Canadian dollar rose while the greenback weakened following the release of the Fed minutes, rising 0.08 of a cent to 95.08 cents US.

U.S. indexes were generally lacklustre as the minutes showed that about half of the Fed's 19 member policy-making committee said they would support ending its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying program late this year. But many agreed at the meeting last month that the job market's improvement would have to be sustained before the Fed would reduce its bond purchases.

The meeting was held prior to the release of a stronger-than-expected U.S. employment report for June which came out last Friday.

The Dow Jones industrials closed down 8.68 points to 15,291.66, while the Nasdaq was 16.5 points higher to 3,520.76. The S&P 500 index edged up 0.3 of a point at 1,652.62.

The stimulus from the U.S. has kept interest rates low to encourage borrowing and spending. It has also been a major factor in driving stocks higher, so the prospect of tapering has caused market volatility in recent weeks.

Recently, however, investors have been focusing on improvements in the U.S. economy, such as the recent jobs report for June that blew past expectations.

"We know that it isn't going to last forever," said Fred Ketchen, manager of equity trading at ScotiaMcLeod.

"And when it starts to be cut back, it’s not going to be a case of slamming the door and it’s cut off. It would be in stages of course."

Meanwhile, the most recent concerns about the health of the world's second-biggest economy grew after the release of disappointing trade data.

China's exports fell by 3.1 per cent in June compared with a year earlier and imports contracted by 0.7 per cent, customs data showed Wednesday. Both were below forecasts of growth in the low single digits.

The report was issued a day after the International Monetary Fund scaled back this year's growth forecast for China to 7.8 per cent from 8.1 per cent.

Commodity markets were higher despite the glum Chinese data.

The energy sector rose 0.72 per cent as a larger-than-expected drop in oil supplies suggested stronger demand and underlined the signs of economic recovery in the U.S.

Growing unrest in Egypt has also helped support oil prices, which haven't traded above $105 since May 2012. Shares in Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ) advanced 70 cents to C$32.67.

The consumers staples sector was also positive as shares in convenience store giant Alimentation Couche-Tard (TSX:ATD.B) and drugstore operator Jean Coutu Group clawed back losses sustained Tuesday in the wake of poorly received earnings reports.

Couche-Tard gained $3.65 or 6.26 per cent to $62 while Jean Coutu climbed 54 cents or 3.1 per cent to $17.98.

The gold sector was slightly higher as August bullion gained $1.50 to US$1,247.40 an ounce. Kinross Gold (TSX:K) was up six cents to C$4.87.

The base metals sector was down 0.8 per cent while September copper gained three cents to US$3.09 a pound. Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B) declined 55 cents to C$21.84.

The utilities sector was off 0.9 per cent. Fortis Inc. (TSX:FTS) slipped 37 cents to $32.05.

The tech sector also fell with BlackBerry (TSX:BB) down 40 cents or 3.92 per cent to $9.80 a day after chief executive Thorsten Heins asked shareholders for patience as the company pushes ahead with its goal to become profitable again. It was the first time the stock has sunk below $10 since late November.