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With Catalysts Lacking, Investors to Hunt for Conviction in Coming Week

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Don't be surprised if stocks get stuck in limbo for a while longer.

The reaction to two pieces of major market moving news at the end of the week tells all. Investors welcomed the rise in jobs during February as a healthy indicator of ongoing improvement and gave a small acknowledgement to Greece's successful debt swap which concluded on Thursday. But, all in all, no floor trader was gushing over the news. The reaction to Friday's declaration from the International Swaps and Derivatives Association that Greece was technically in a default was rather muted as stock were still able to close fractionally higher that day. As the dust settles, the question continues to be, now what?

Economists have long said that the eurozone's bigger problem is its long term debt burden, the Achilles heel of economic growth in the region. Growth there shrank last quarter, according to data earlier this week. And, progress on Greece's debt restructuring handily illustrates that austerity begets further austerity.

The U.S. jobs report, while marking a string of three monthly payroll gains above 200,000, still underscores the work policymakers have to do to get hiring back to pre-recession levels. "Temporary hiring in areas such as home health care is making a larger contribution to overall payroll growth, casting some doubt on the quality of new job creation and the sustainability of the broader labor market recovery," said a report by Fitch Ratings on Friday.

In short, there's been no clear catalyst for buyers or sellers. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq indices finished the week essentially flat, while and the Dow Jones Industrial Average has crept slowly under the 13,000 mark. Technical analysts are still fearful that weakness in Dow transport stocks and the Russell 2000 index of small caps forebodes a further stock correction.

"Our feeling is that the remainder of this month will continue to be volatile," says Tom Villalta, market strategist at Jones Villalta Asset Management. "Europe continues to be a headwind and will create sporadic volatility although its importance will diminish as the year goes on."

"We believe the minor market pullback we have been calling for has begun, and we think at Tuesday's close was probably about half over," writes Mark Arbeter, technical analyst with S&P Capital IQ, referring to Tuesday's worst one-day selloff year to date. "While we are still holding out for another shot lower in the S&P 500, perhaps to the 1,330 region, if the index can pop back above the 1,370 tp 1,380 zone, it may be a sign that our 3% to 5% pullback forecast was a bit aggressive... we must be alert to the possibility that the pullback is over based on the rapid snapback."

Some market watchers say that the next major driver of markets will be first quarter earnings. "There's a lot of uncertainty with regard to earnings and we can hear that from the CEOs," says Villalta. "As earnings unfold, that may help market continue to move upward in 2012."

The next week doesn't provide much fodder in terms of earnings but the economic calendar is chock full. The Federal Reserve holds a committee meeting and, while it is not expected to announce any change in its monetary policy plans, investors may draw some conclusions of their own based on whether the bank acknowledges the latest improvement in the jobs market. After the Wall Street Journal reported this week that the central bank has been thinking about a new kind of bond buying plan that would seek to contain inflation expectations at the same time, investors will be scavenging for any hints as to the chances that this plan will actually be carried out. Fed chief Ben Bernanke speaks on Wednesday.

Scrutiny over how much economic help policymakers can provide has been growing, especially after stocks have climbed in light of the Fed's operation twist program from last year and the European Central Bank's two rounds of long-term refinancing for the region's financial system.

"This entire rally is purely based on liquidity," says Steve Ayer, managing director at HighTower's Strata Wealth Management. "Think about Europe -- how bad earnings were. Brent is soaring, unemployment there is rising still, GDP is coming in weaker, the economic data is awful. Yet, European stocks have skyrocketed."

Reports worthy of note out of the U.S. are retail sales on Tuesday; import and export prices on Wednesday; producer prices, manufacturing reports and jobless claims on Thursday; and consumer prices, industrial production and consumer sentiment on Friday.

The Department of Commerce is expected to report that retail sales in February climbed 1% according to a poll by Thomson Reuters, adding to a 0.4% rise in January.

Export prices, also released by the Commerce Department, are expected to rise 0.2% in February after increasing by 0.1% in the prior month. Import prices likely rose 0.5% after a 0.1% climb in January.

The Empire State Manufacturing Survey from the New York Federal Reserve probably ticked in at a reading of 17 in March, lower than the prior month's level of 19.5.

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve releases its own business index, which is likely to come in at a reading of 12 for March, better than 10.2 in February.

Producer prices, reported by the Labor Department, likely rose by 0.4% in February adding to a 0.1% climb in the prior month. Excluding gas and food prices, those prices likely rose 0.2%, slightly lower than the 0.4% climb seen in the prior month. For another hint on how inflation levels are holding up, a report from the Labor Department later in the week should show that consumer prices ticked up 0.4% last month, adding to a 0.2% rise in January. The core reading on those prices probably rose 0.2% after a similar climb the prior month.

Industrial production levels in February likely improved by 0.4%, according to a reading by the Federal Reserve. The reading on production levels stayed unchanged in January.

The University of Michigan's read on consumer sentiment will likely come in at 75.6 in March, just a smidgen higher than 75.3 in February.

-- Written by Chao Deng in New York.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Chao Deng.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to: @chao_deng

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