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The Coming Week: Old Enemies

The calendar is changing, but Wall Street's worry list remains the same.

Real estate is softening. Energy prices and interest rates are high, raising the specter of inflation. Consumer spending feels spotty. The trade and budget deficits are widening just as the baby boomers ponder retirement. Sound familiar?

If this year's denouement reminds you of last year's, then the stock market's tepid progress in 2005 makes sense. The S&P 500 finished the year with a gain of 3.2%; it barely beat the 4.4% yield offered on Treasuries when adjusted for dividends. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 0.4% before dividends in 2005, while the Nasdaq rose 1.5%

"The stock market has been going sideways for a very long time now, and it looks to me like it will continue to do so," said John Bollinger, president of Bollinger Capital Management.

Some investors took a 4.1% growth rate in third-quarter GDP as evidence the recovery is alive. They say the stock market is girding for the next leg of its bull run, citing the 215,000 new jobs created in November, and the historically low unemployment rate of 5%.

Any disappointment in next Friday's employment report on December could kill that optimism, especially because the economy has yet to add a healthy number of jobs every month on a consistent basis. Economists expect the government to report that the economy added 200,000 jobs to nonfarm payrolls in December.

"It's clear that employment growth this time around has been sub-par compared to previous economic recoveries," said Paul Mendelsohn, chief economist with Windham Financial Services. "You need about the number of jobs that we're adding now just to stay even with the number of people entering the economy. It's very possible that we're going to continue to see sub-par growth."

So far this year, on average, the economy has added about 167,000 jobs a month. In 1997, when GDP grew at 4.5%, the economy added an average 280,000 jobs a month. In 1998, when GDP added 4.1%, the economy added an average of 250,000 jobs a month.

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