Investors' concerns about geopolitical tensions are likely to dominate market activity in the coming week. Stocks finished lower last week, in part because of news developments in North Korea and Iraq. The Dow Jones Industrial Average retreated 210 points, or 2.4%, to 8435, while the Nasdaq shed 60 points, or 4.2%, to 1422. The S&P 500 fell 23 points, or 2.5%, to 912. North Korea said it would reactivate nuclear power plants, which had been shut down under a previous agreement with the U.S., Japan and South Korea. President Bush called the North Koreans' move a "serious matter." Elsewhere, the U.S. said Iraq's 11,000-page report on its weapons program was far from complete. The overseas announcements most likely kept many investors on the sidelines in the past week. Daily trading volume was modest, with an average of 1.25 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange and an average of 1.22 billion shares in play on the Nasdaq. "Until we get a clearer picture of the situation, I expect more of the same," said Brian Pears, head of equity trading at Victory Capital Management. "This is capping what would have been a strong end-of-the-year period." For the year, the Dow is down 17%, the Nasdaq is behind 31% and the S&P 500 is lower by 23%. Looking ahead, some say that the potential of a military clash in Iraq is not being taken seriously enough. "We believe that there is a high probability for a conflict," said Steven Wieting, an economist at Salomon Smith Barney. "And we think that is currently underweighted in most forecasts." Meanwhile, investors are looking for greater information about the economy after recent signs of weakness, including the loss of 40,000 jobs in November and a spike in the unemployment rate up to 6%. On a positive note, the Federal Reserve said last week that the paucity of data released since its meeting in November is not inconsistent with an economy working its way out of a soft spot. Next week's reports -- which feature housing starts numbers, industrial production data, the Philly Fed survey and a final reading on third-quarter GDP -- are likely to provide some more clarification.
On Tuesday, housing starts for November are predicted to tick up to 1.690 million, according to Briefing.com, from 1.603 million in October, in a sign of ongoing strength for the housing market. Separately, industrial production, an important gauge of the factory sector, is predicted to rise to 0.2% in November after falling 0.8% in October, according to Briefing.com. Capacity utilization, which measures demand for manufactured goods, is expected to remain at a low level of 75.4%, however. On Thursday, an index of leading economic indicators, which includes initial jobless claims and building permits, is expected on Thursday to increase 0.3% in November after being flat in October. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Fed survey, a regional measure of U.S. manufacturing activity, is expected to drop slightly to 5.3 in December from a reading of 6.1 in November. Finally, the final reading for third-quarter GDP is expected to come in at 4% on Friday, in line with previous estimates. By now, most economists figure that growth slowed in the fourth quarter, however. Overall, the data -- if they match economists' estimates -- could have benign market implications. "Next week's reports will favor the continuation of economic growth, albeit at a mild pace," said John Lonski, senior economist at Moody's Investor Service. "But we are not observing improvements in profitability that would allow investors to shrug off the risks of above-average geopolitical uncertainty." Among companies scheduled to report earnings are Circuit City ( CC), Darden Restaurants ( DRI), Biomet ( BMET), FedEx ( FDX) and Oracle ( ORCL).