Now that Friday's jobs data has raised concerns about the breadth of the economic recovery -- while also leading analysts to believe interest rates will remain low longer than previously expected -- the market is likely to trade with little conviction in the coming week. "Everyone is on hold," said Robert Pavlik, a portfolio manager at Oak Tree Asset Management. There is "no real conviction to become a seller or a buyer because we're not getting the economic reports that say the economy is way on track or getting the ones that say we want to be out of stocks and back into bonds." Paul Nolte, director of investments at Hindsdale Associates, also thinks the market will lack momentum. "My guess has been that the markets are digesting the big gains from 2003 and will maybe do that for a while," he said, describing next week's action as likely to be "push and pull." Friday's February employment report -- which showed that nonfarm payrolls rose by only 21,000 -- left the market thinking that the Federal Reserve will keep interest rates longer than previously thought, in order to stimulate the economy. But while low rates can be good for equity markets, they can hamper corporate earnings growth, Nolte noted. "Low rates all by themselves are not the magic pill for what ails the economy," said Nolte. Thus, the weak jobs data will create a "wall of worry" over the market next week, especially as the first-quarter earnings season approaches, Pavlik said. As a result, Pavlik thinks the market will have more down days than up days as the end of March approaches. He expects it to move less than 1% either way on any given day next week. "I can't really pinpoint what is going to be driving the market except short-term traders," he said.
Pavlik is especially concerned that the tech sector could continue to weigh on the market, in part because of Intel's ( INTC) weaker-than-expected quarterly sales update issued on Thursday, which shows that growth in the sector has been weaker than originally hoped. "I'm not all that encouraged by the news from Intel. But I'm not surprised at the same time," he said. "A lot of people see it as Intel preparing people
for a weaker than originally expected quarter but then they try to beat consensus when they report." As for economic reports, retail sales will be one of the most important releases next week because the market will be looking to see if consumers are supporting an economic recovery. In other words: "Have we been able to sustain brisk consumer spending regardless of the lack of jobs creation?" said John Lonski, senior economist at Moody's. Economists foresee a 0.5% increase in February's overall retail sales, compared to a 0.3% decline last month. Excluding automobile sales, the expectation is for a 0.5% gain, from a 0.9% increase in January. Looking ahead, Lonski thinks there's a chance retail sales could increase 3.5% quarter to quarter on an annualized basis, despite the absence of jobs creation. Again, because of Friday's jobs data, the market will also be watching Thursday's initial jobless claims very closely. Lonksi expects claims to remain relatively unchanged from the prior week's 345,000. "It would worry me if they rise. They might hold steady or decline, but that doesn't imply that nonfarm payrolls will grow more substantially in March," said Lonski, referring to the deviation in results between the government's monthly employment report and its weekly jobless data. Lonski conceded, however, that "it could be for some odd reason that the payroll number is understating the condition of the U.S. labor market."
He doesn't think the Fed will raise interest rates "until we've grown payrolls by at least 150,000 per month for three consecutive months," but noted that "some time may pass before that is achieved." Payroll data shows that just 122,000 jobs have been created in the past year. Meanwhile, Friday's preliminary reading of March consumer sentiment from the University of Michigan is also likely to be watched closely. Nolte expects the reading to continue to drop. "Part of it is predicated on the sloppy market but also because the employment report was not terrific," he said. Nevertheless, economists have predicted a reading of 95.2, from February's reading of 94.4. On Wednesday, the international trade balance will be released with analysts forecasting a $41.6 billion deficit. Wholesale inventories, which will also be released Wednesday, are seen up 0.4%, compared to a 0.5% increase in December. The import/export price index for February will be released on Thursday. In addition, the federal budget for February will be out; it is seen at a deficit of $100 billion. Finally, on Friday, business inventories for January are expected to increase 0.3%. The producer price index for February was also due out, but has been postponed for technical reasons as the government switches statistical standards. For his part, Pavlik is optimistic for an eventual recovery. "I understand that the jobs report has sort of put the economy in a position of questionable stance, but I think it's more of a Chinese water torture," he said. Earnings next week include Ann Taylor ( ANN), Kroger ( KR) and Albertson's ( ABS) on Tuesday; Krispy Kreme ( KKD) and Talbots ( TLB) on Wednesday; and Oracle ( ORCL), El Paso ( EP) and Borders Group ( BGP) on Thursday.