Compared with last week's jampacked calendar, the coming week's lineup looks pretty spare. No big Fed appearances, few major earnings reports, a market holiday on Monday and just one key economic report -- the consumer price index, or CPI, out on Wednesday.
But that doesn't mean it will be any easier to stomach. Market watchers expect the coming week to see the same violent struggles that last week did -- between the bulls and the bears, the
Dow and the
Nasdaq, defensive plays and tech stocks. The players will just have less to go on. After all, this week did little to clarify the muddle the market's in over what's in store for the economy and earnings in 2001 -- or what the Fed plans to do with interest rates.
"I think the tussle is going to continue," said John Bollinger, equity strategist and president of
. "The players are very committed here. You should expect great short-term volatility. There are some real battles being fought out," he added.
At the close of last week, the bears were in the driver's seat. Some dire news about future performance from
and several other tech giants Thursday after the close reminded investors that earnings could get a lot worse before they get a lot better. And economic data released that morning didn't support a bullish theory gaining some credence on Wall Street that January was showing the
beginning signs of an economic recovery.
First, there was the
which showed a major and shocking spike in wholesale prices during January. The general number came in at 1.1%, almost four times higher than the expected 0.3% growth, hurt by rises in natural gas prices during the month. Some feared that number would greatly reduce the Fed's appetite for further interest rate cuts. The market had relegated inflation to the back burner, and that was supposed to allow the Fed to move more aggressively on interest rates in coming months -- perhaps even more aggressively than in the past. But the majority of economists felt the January PPI was but a blip that would flatten out in February.
"The Fed is definitely not going to be concerned about this number," said Paul Christopher, senior economist at
. "We think it's just a blip. The PPI tends to be more volatile than other prices, because it's periodically subject to one-off factors. In this case, it was weather-related problems, along with a series of increases in particular sectors. Those increases do not reflect a broad trend toward higher prices."
Indeed, by late Friday, the market was still pricing in around a 69% chance of a half-point interest-rate cut at the Fed's next meeting on March 20. In any case, Wall Streeters will probably pay close attention to that other big inflation indicator out next week, the consumer price index, to see if the PPI was really an aberration.
More worrying, said some economists, were the consumer confidence and industrial production numbers released Friday. Some were hoping that consumers had begun to lose their blues in January, but the data showed otherwise. The
University of Michigan's
consumer sentiment index
fell to its lowest levels since November 1993. And this is one indicator the Fed has said it's watching carefully. Consumer confidence levels are key to an economic rebound because they are so closely linked to consumer spending. January industrial production, meanwhile, was also off more sharply than economists were expecting, though not quite as bad as December's output trail-off.
But the biggest concern for next week -- on the heels of Nortel, Dell and
warnings -- may be that the next round of earnings warnings is already upon us. A report put out late Friday by Joseph Kalinowski of
First Call/Thompson Financial
suggests that confession season may have come "a little early this year."
"Nortel, Dell and Hewlett-Packard have joined a surprisingly long list of those companies crumbling under the weight of this economic slowdown. If you think things appear bleak now, wait a few weeks, things will get worse," says the report.
Negative preannouncements this year already total 289 compared with only 33 last year, said the report. And almost one-third of these are coming out of technology.
Most companies and analysts were initially expecting business to pick up in the third quarter this year. But with
visibility issues cropping up all across the tech universe, that forecast has lost muscle. And the threat of more serious warnings has become more severe. Some are now saying real earnings growth won't begin again until the fourth quarter.
Stay Away From the Windows!
But the news isn't all bad. At least underlying sentiment is improving, says Bollinger, as indicated by Thursday's sweeping rally. Bollinger said the market is beginning to form a bottom, though that process could take a long, long time. All it took to spur Thursday's bursting rally was a rosy earnings report from
. The fiber-optic star beat Wall Street estimates for its fiscal first-quarter earnings and, more importantly,
forecast strong growth.
"People are starting to pay attention to good news," said Bollinger. "When we get another warning without a downside response in the market, we'll know the back of this decline is really broken."
Duck and Cover
Meanwhile, investors will also keep a wary eye on Baghdad next week. U.S. and British aircraft attacked two military command and control centers outside the city Friday in the no-fly zone.
Iraq is a major world supplier of oil, so this situation could threaten supply and push up oil prices. Pentagon officials said the attack was launched because of an increasingly sophisticated threat against allied planes patrolling the area. The no-fly zone was set up by U.S. and British forces at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, but is not recognized by Iraq. Today's attack was the first since February 1999, when U.S. warplanes attacked the outskirts of Baghdad.
So, while the week may look uneventful at first blush, it's no time to fall asleep on your investments.