The Coming Week: Economy Takes Spotlight

The market is likely to be in a holding pattern next week, as traders head home for the holidays. To keep busy, investors will focus on a handful of economic reports, including personal income and spending data, durable goods orders, new homes sales and the consumer sentiment index.

"A lot of the decision-makers won't be around," said Bob Basel, a trader at Salomon Smith Barney. "There is going to be a lack of liquidity. Most people will do nothing approaching the end of the year."

Stocks ended more or less flat last week, held down by concerns about a war in Iraq. On Thursday, the U.S. told the U.N. Security Council that Iraq was in "material breach" of a resolution for disclosing weapons of mass destruction. U.N. inspectors are expected to report their findings Jan. 27.

"I think that people believe we are going to war in Iraq," said Todd Leone, a trader at SG Cowen, adding that the prospect of a conflict will continue to be a drag on the market until Jan. 27, at least.

Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.9% to 8512.01, while the Nasdaq gained a point to 1363.7. The S&P 500 climbed 0.7% to 895.85.

The indices got a boost on Friday following a speech by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who voiced optimism about the economy's prospects for growth next year. Stocks also reacted positively to news that day of a settlement in the investigation into Wall Street research.

Still, the S&P 500 is on track to end lower for the third year in a row -- the first time that has happened since the end of the Great Depression. The broader index is down about 23% so far this year.

In the coming week, investors will continue to finish up the process of closing their books. "People are gearing up for next year," said Leone. "I do not see accounts doing that much."

Personal income and spending data for November will be released on Monday. Despite concerns about the consumer, personal spending is forecast to tick up 0.4% after rising 0.4% in October.

Elsewhere, the University of Michigan will release its consumer sentiment index for December. A consensus of economists is predicting it to come in at 86.5 vs. a preliminary reading of 87.

During the shortened session Tuesday, November durable goods orders -- expenditures for big-ticket items -- will be reported. They are expected to rise 0.9% after a big gain of 2.8% in October. And annualized new home sales for November are expected to come in flat at a robust level of 1 million on Friday.

In the corporate sector, earnings warnings may keep a lid on the market near term. "It is our opinion that equities will remain under pressure until we pass through confession season and enter the fourth-quarter reporting season," said Joe Kalinowski, chief investment officer at Ehrenkrantz King Nussbaum.

Among the few companies scheduled to report results next week are American Greetings ( AM), Park Electrochemical ( PKE) and Workflow Management ( WORK).

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