Updated from 8:46 a.m. EDT

(At 4:20 p.m. EDT)

Tomorrow Ends the Week

With the stock market closed Friday to observe the Good Friday holiday, tomorrow will be the final trading day of the week. While traders would likely prefer a quiet end to the holiday-shortened week, Thursday looks to be anything but.

That's due to a number of factors, with the biggest being monthly retail same-store sales data. Consumer spending has fallen off of a cliff in the last few months, and these data very well could reflect that.

While consumer spending is down, you may remember that retail sales rose a revised 1.8% in January, or 1.6% excluding autos. And while February retail sales, released a few weeks ago, showed a decline of 0.1%, sales excluding autos increased 0.7%, the first consecutive monthly gain since July. Tomorrow's data will give economists an indication if that trend will continue in March (the next retail sales report from the Commerce Department won't come until next week).

Of course, Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Target ( TGT) will be closely watched, but apparel retailers like Aeropostale ( ARO) and American Eagle Outfitters ( AEO), both of which have traded sharply higher in 2009, will be worth watching.

Economic Data on Tap

In addition to chain-store sales, investors will have three economic reports to contend with before the opening bell. At 8:30 a.m. EDT, separate reports on import and export prices, the trade deficit and weekly initial jobless claims will be released.

Perhaps the most crucial of the three reports will be the weekly initial jobless claims data, and not simply because it's the most timely of the them all (the trade deficit figure is for February while import and export prices are from last month). Some of those hoping for an economic turnaround believe that the first signs may come from the weekly jobless numbers.

While no one should expect the jobless claims to fall precipitously from the 669,000 reported last week, many are hoping for the rate of decline to slow. Briefing.com is currently forecasting 650,000 claims last week. Sure, it's not much better than 669,000, but it sure isn't worse. Anytime bad data doesn't get worse is a reason to celebrate these days.

One Last Bit For the Bulls

On the day before Good Friday last year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average surged 260 points. In the two years before that, the Dow also managed to go into Easter weekend with a small gain. If Wednesday's momentum carries over, we very could extend that streak to four straight years. (At 8 a.m. EDT)

Addressing the Uptick Rule

The top headline today will be the Securities and Exchange Commission's decision on exactly what to do with the uptick rule. The commission will hold its open meeting at 10 a.m. EDT and is set to consider four different proposals, including a reinstitution of the old uptick rule or a modified one that would be enforced with a circuit breaker or some sort of a bid test.

I received some great responses from readers to an article published yesterday on the uptick rule and the arguments both for and against it. Here are two that really capture, I believe, how the regular investor feels about whether the rule or a modified version is needed.

" Short Selling is just plain BAD for INVESTORS. If the market is for gamblers, so be it. Change the emphasis and buy/sell rules and move the exchanges to Vegas. Then, see investors exit the market." -- K.M.

"The average investor like me cannot profit if the uptick rule is not restored." -- D.R.

However, I find it curious that the market and financial stocks aren't reacting more positively to the news. The contrast between the market's reaction to this SEC meeting and the one held by the Financial Accounting Standards Board on April 2 is markedly different. When the FASB voted to soften mark-to-market accounting rules, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose more than 200 points. Today? Dow futures are 45 points below fair value.

Additionally, financial stocks like Citigroup ( C), Bank of America ( BAC) and JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) were essentially flat in the premarket session. I suppose we'll have to wait until after the SEC's meeting to see what the market's real reaction will be.

Earnings Roundup

First-quarter earnings season unofficially kicked off last night with the release of Alcoa's ( AA) quarterly report. The Pittsburgh-based aluminum giant fell short of Wall Street's forecast with an adjusted loss of 59 cents a share. Meanwhile, revenue fell both sequentially and year over year to $4.15 billion. Not surprisingly, Alcoa shares were trading lower in the premarket session.

Bed Bath & Beyond ( BBBY) was also out with its own earnings report after the close last night. The retailer managed to beat the average analyst forecast by Thomson Reuters, but its fiscal fourth-quarter profit fell more than 18% from a year ago. Still, the stock was surging nearly 13% ahead of Wednesday's open.

Shares of Ruby Tuesday ( RT) and Family Dollar ( FDO) were also rallying early on their respective earnings reports. Ruby Tuesday reported a hefty drop in earnings but still exceeded expectations, and Family Dollar topped sales estimates.

The real bulk of earnings reports won't begin until next week, so in the meantime, I have some interesting stats to hopefully prepare you for the onslaught. According to John Butters, a research analyst at Thomson Reuters, consumer discretionary is expected to be the worst performing sector this quarter. Analysts are expecting a loss in aggregate of about $800 million compared with earnings of about $11 billion a year ago. That's good for a negative growth rate of 107%. Ouch.

The second worst performing sector is expected to be materials, down 79%, with energy third (down 57%) and financials in fourth place (down 43%). Butters points out that for a handful of financials, they're starting to see some benefits from the easy year-ago comparisons.

Citigroup, for example, is expected to be a contributor. A loss of 36 cents a share is estimated, but last year it reported a loss of $1.02 a share. Even though it's still a loss, it's much smaller than a year ago. It's a similar story with AIG ( AIG).

It's hard to say there's a "best performer" because even the top sector is expected to show a negative growth rate. In fact, Butters says all 10 sectors of the S&P 500 are expecting declines. But if there are so-called winning sectors, they'd be health care (expected loss of 3%) and consumer staples and utilities (both expecting declines of 7%).

Sure, analysts could still update their numbers, creating the risk that these estimates could continue to fall. But for now, that's how the picture looks for this earnings reporting season.

M&A Returning

It's no IBM ( IBM) - Sun Microsystems ( JAVA) tie-up, that's for sure, but Pulte Homes ( PHM) is taking over fellow homebuilder Centex ( CTX) in a deal worth $3.1 billion, including $1.8 billion of debt.

Under the terms of the agreement, Pulte will exchange 0.975 shares for each share of Centex, valuing Centex at $10.50 a share. Shares of Centex were jumping 27% to $9.73 in the premarket session.

TARP Watchdog Has Bite

According to Bloomberg, a congressional panel overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, has suggested that firing top bank executives and liquidating problem banks may be a better way to solve the economic crisis.

"All successful efforts to address bank crises have involved the combination of moving aside failed management and getting control of the process of valuing bank balance sheets," the Congressional Oversight Panel, headed by Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren, said in its report.