Just because the Federal Reserve meeting is out of the way doesn't mean investors will stop obsessing about it in the week ahead. But with little economic news due out over the next few trading days, it's going to be hard to draw new conclusions about the direction of interest rates. The Fed raised its short-term target rate by 25 basis points on Wednesday but maintained its pledge to raise rates this year "at a pace that is likely to be measured." A disappointing employment report on Friday, and other data showing a slowdown in the economy, suggest it won't be hard to keep that promise. But the holiday-shortened week won't provide investors with any more significant clues on that front, since only four second-tier economic reports are due out. What it could provide, however, are some clues about the upcoming earnings season. Earnings preannouncements, which have so far been very positive, are expected to speed up now that the second quarter is over. Meanwhile, three major companies will report earnings: Yahoo! ( YHOO) and Alcoa ( AA) on Wednesday and General Electric ( GE) on Friday. "Next week is a prelude, or a set-up for the rash of earnings to come in the three weeks after that," said Larry Wachtel, senior vice president at Wachovia Securities. Yahoo! is slated to report an 8-cent profit on Wednesday while Alcoa is expected to earn 47 cents a share. General Electric, which is sometimes seen as a proxy for the broader market and economy, is projected to earn 37 cents a share. In all, Thomson First Call is expecting companies in the S&P 500 to post year-over-year earnings growth of 26% in the second quarter. "We expect another strong quarter of earnings momentum to push stocks moderately higher in coming weeks," said analysts from J.P. Morgan in a report.
Tom Schrader, a trader at Legg Mason Wood Walker, said he is expecting a slightly bullish tone to the market next week, noting that stocks have been strong the week after the July Fourth holiday in 13 of the past 15 years. "We're generally looking for a more positive week next week, although volume will probably be light," he said. Stocks have fallen and oil prices have jumped sharply heading into the long weekend, partly on concerns about a possible terrorist attack. If the holiday passes without a hitch, however, some say that could spark a rally. "If nothing happens geopolitically, I guess that could provide a
boost ," Wachtel said. Historically, July has been the highest-returning month for the S&P 500, according to a study by Bryan Olsen, vice president at the Schwab Center for Investment Research. Still, Wachtel said he is expecting the market to remain "range-bound" for the rest of the summer, as investors continue to re-evaluate the sustainability of the economic expansion and the Fed's next move on rates. Schrader also remains skeptical about how far the market can advance in the face of slowing economic data. "I think the market has already priced in good earnings," he said. "I wouldn't look for new money to start coming in until two or three weeks before the election" on November 2. The S&P, Dow and Nasdaq have traded in a narrow range for the past three months but fell this week, with all three averages off by about 0.8%. In the current uncertain environment, Don Cassidy, a senior research analyst at Lipper, said investors should stay diversified and remain flexible. "Don't have too much bet on any one theme," he said. Cassidy believes that a mix of growth and value still makes sense for investors over the second half of the year. "We also think that the small-cap side has been played out for a long time and that at some point the bull market will be led by large-caps, so we would own some of those kinds of funds." Although the news flow is expected to slow down next week, the Institute for Supply Management's services index has the potential to move the market on Tuesday. The index is expected to pull back from April's record high reading to 65.0 from 65.2. Initial unemployment claims and consumer credit data are on tap for Thursday followed by wholesale inventories on Friday.