With little else to divert it, the market will spend the next four sessions waiting for the fifth, when the government unveils its employment report for July. Stock and bond traders alike hope to divine the near-term direction of the economy from the data, which follow an anemic report on gross domestic product growth in the second quarter.

July's number is particularly important because of the paltry number of jobs added in the prior month. The consensus is that payrolls grew by about 250,000, while the whisper number is lower, at 230,000. In June, the economy added 112,000 jobs, well below the consensus forecast for 250,000, while April and May were revised lower as well.

Another miss -- combined with scattered signs of a slowing economy throughout July and the somewhat weak corporate guidance issued in second-quarter earnings reports -- would be bad news for stocks, said Robert Pavlik, portfolio manager at OakTree Asset Management.

The market is already worried that the economy is moderating because of last Friday's soft GDP report. The government said U.S. GDP grew at a 3% annual pace in the second quarter, well below the 3.7% growth rate economists had projected. Results were hurt in part by weak consumer spending.

The employment report is also significant in its political implications, noted Daniel Morgan, senior portfolio manager at Synovus Investment Advisors. A strong addition of new jobs should bolster the Bush administration's re-election prospects, while weakening Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's ability to argue that the economy is stagnating.

And the employment report could also affect how quickly Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan decides to lift interest rates, said Pavlik. The Federal Open Market Committee meets on Aug. 10.

"Friday's employment report will give us something to think about as we head into the Fed meeting," he said. "If the report is below expectations, people will be wondering what will the Fed do."

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