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Schwartz: Pivotal Week Ahead

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The S&P 500 Index (.SPX) lost 24.15 points on a volatile expiration Friday and in the process suffered its third largest point drop so far in 2012. It was the biggest loss since a 30 point drop suffered on June 21. The one-day slide stands in stark contrast to the recent trend. The average daily move in the S&P 500 since May has been less than eight points. Is Friday part of a change in trend or just a short-term blip on the radar screen during a longer-term period of falling volatility? Here are a few indicators to watch in the week ahead.

The S&P 500 will be worth watching as the index dropped Friday to test a 50-day moving average and trendline support (see chart below). A decisive move below the MA and a drop below 1,425 (October lows) in the S&P 500 would perhaps signal the beginning of a more substantial drop and I'd look for the recent uptick in volatility to continue.

Some key commodities were weak Friday, with crude oil falling more than $2 and gold losing about $22.50. The weakness might reflect the underlying anxiety about a global economic slowdown, which is also weighing on equity markets. Crude oil is up $0.20 to $90.24 today and gold is up $2 to $1726. I'll be keeping an eye on those two markets as well.

Of course, the Eurozone isn't out of the woods and news headlines from Spain, Greece and other European nations continue to have market impact here in the US. At the same time, the euro dipped down to test the key 1.30 level against the buck. EUR/USD is up 0.3% to 1.305 this morning. A decisive move back below 1.30 would probably be an indicator of mounting anxiety levels about Europe's debt mess, which would probably send volatility higher in the US as well. The market will also digest a flood of earnings reports in the days ahead. Last week, Dow components International Business Machines (IBM) and Intel (INTC) put pressure on the Dow Wednesday in the wake of their earnings reports. The NASDAQ sank Thursday afternoon when Google (GOOG) pre-released its results. McDonald's (MCD), Microsoft (MSFT) and General Electric (GE) were the three stooges in the Dow Friday after shares fell on the heels of their reports. Dow components Dupont (DD) and United Technologies (UTX) report Tuesday morning, and AT&T (T) and Boeing (BA) are Wednesday morning. Of course, all eyes will be on tech giant Apple (AAPL) (which is not a member of the Dow, but is an important component in the Nasdaq) when it reports Thursday afternoon.

Finally, this week's domestic economic calendar is loaded with events and information for investors to digest, including new home sales Wednesday morning, Jobless claims and durable goods orders Thursday. Third quarter GDP numbers are due out Friday, and as Wall Street hates uncertainty, I also believe the recent tightening of the Presidential race is contributing to volatility. For that reason, tonight's Presidential debate on foreign policy looms larger than usual. Any dramatic swings in the polls after the event might impact sentiment in the week ahead.

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