Updated from 8:33 p.m. ET to include information on after-hours trading. NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The slow meltup may finally giving way to a slow meltdown. Thursday saw those raising the alarm about the potential hard landing in China got some data to back up the thesis, and while most market watchers have been expecting Europe to slip into recession, there's still bound to be a chilling effect when the economic reports begin to confirm this, as the Eurozone purchasing managers' index did. When the closing bell sounded, the S&P 500 had surrendered 1400, falling three days in a row, and was on pace for its worst week of the year. Even Apple ( AAPL) showed some wear, falling back below $600. So is this the start of the long-awaited pullback in U.S. stocks? Well, right now the negative catalysts seem to outweigh the positive ones. The bears can point to high oil prices heading higher, expectations for a lackluster first-quarter reporting season next month, and the likelihood that the mild winter has exaggerated the improvement in U.S. economic data, pulling forward growth typically seen in the spring. The bulls have already gotten arguably a year's worth of appreciation in the S&P 500, up 10.8% so far in 2012, in less than three months, and the prospect of the Federal Reserve embarking on another round of quantitative easing has dimmed decidedly in the past few weeks. What's more, if Wall Street needed a moment to point to where the bullishness went overboard, it may have gotten it on Wednesday with Goldman Sachs and its generational call on stocks. Real Money contributor Doug Kass took Goldman to task on Thursday, asking out loud if the firm may have inadvertently called a near-term top in equities. He also punched some holes in the arguments the Goldman analysts presented in favor of stocks, and noted that there's some diversion of opinion even within the firm itself Tellingly, bond yields have crept back down over the past few days with the 10-year Treasury settling at 2.28% on Thursday. Using common sense as a barometer, that fact that Goldman's call comes after close to six months of steady gains should be enough to give investors pause. For example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, itself up 6.8% year-to-date, has nearly doubled off its March 2009 closing lows during the financial crisis. That move puts the blue-chip index within 8% of its record closing high of 14165 in October 2007.
What sounds more like a generational opportunity to you? Buying stocks in March 2009 or right now? Maybe that's not a fair comparison to make, given how dire things looked back then, but that's why those guys at Goldman get paid the big bucks, right? As for Friday's scheduled news, investor won't get much in the way of earnings or economic data. KB Home ( KBH) is the only name of note before the opening bell, and Wall Street is expecting a loss of 24 cents a share in the company's fiscal first quarter ended in February on revenue of $337.7 million. The homebuilders have been hot in 2012 as investors want to believe the housing market is starting a long climb back towards healthy. Bank of America Merrill Lynch even went so far on Thursday as to proclaim that home prices are in the process of bottoming right now, although the firm expects this to be a two-year process as the government implements policies to help things along. "We expect roughly flat home prices this year and next with modest growth in 2014," B of A analysts said. "The main difference from our prior forecast is that prices reach the bottom earlier. But, along with the earlier bottom is a slower recovery, and hence a flatter profile. We still believe prices should accelerate in the later years once the majority of the foreclosure inventory is absorbed, allowing prices to snap back to the trend in income. From 2012 through 2020, we look for cumulative price growth of 42%, which is comparable to our prior forecast." As for KB Home, the stock has soared nearly 70% year-to-date, but it's still down roughly 15% in the past year. The sell side is still in wait-and-see mode with 21 of the 25 analysts at either hold (15), underperform (4) or sell (2), and investors may want to do the same as the company isn't expected to turn profitable again until the fourth quarter. Calling the stock a "show-me story," Guggenheim Securities is at sell on KB Home, and it's holding out to see if the company was able to grow margins along with orders.
"KBH's gross margin declined 460bp
basis points from 4Q10 to 4Q11 (19.7% to 15.1%) on a 4.0% increase in unit closing volume," the firm said. "Despite 4Q11's results, we are forecasting 210bp of Y/Y gross margin growth to 15.5% in 1Q12 on a 56.8% increase in unit closing volumes. However, if KBH fails to capitalize (i.e., grow the gross margin) on unit closing growth, we think this operational weakness would be a reinforcing catalyst for our SELL rating and could result in 1Q12 EPS below our ($0.34) estimate." Check out TheStreet's quote page for KB Home for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more. After Friday's closing bell, Darden Restaurants ( DRI) opens its books, and the average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for earnings of $1.24 a share on revenue of $2.14 billion in the company's fiscal third quarter. Based on a close at $51.83, shares of the Orlando, Fla.-based parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden are up 15% this year, and Miller Tabak is looking a strong quarter. The firm reiterated its buy rating and $58 price target on the stock on Thursday. "Based on what we have seen in our recent checks, we are encouraged to see Olive Garden continue to gain sales traction thanks to a lunchtime follow-up to a popular dinner promotion, and think same-restaurant sales at DRI's largest concept will remain positive for the next several quarters," Miller Tabak said. The economic calendar features new home sales for February at 10 a.m. ET. The consensus estimate, according to Briefing.com, is for sales to come in at 323,000. Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, is setting his sights much higher, however, estimating the number at 350,000 because of the strength seen in the National Association of Home Builders' recent data. "Were sales now to reach the pace implied by the NAHB, today's number would have to be well north of 400K," he wrote in commentary late Thursday. "That seems unlikely, given that the January reading was only 321K, but at least the direction of travel for the next few months is clear enough." And finally, NikeTICKER TYPE="EQUITY" SYMBOL="NKE"/> shares jogged higher in Thursday's after-hours session after the company was able to top Wall Street's expectations for its fiscal third-quarter results. The Beaverton, Ore.-based company posted a profit of $560 million, or $1.20 a share, on revenue of $5.85 billion for the quarter ended Feb. 29, beating the average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters for earnings of $1.17 a share on revenue of $5.82 billion in the period. The stock added 1.1% to $112.26 in the extended session on volume of nearly 500,000, and it has a shot of breaking through to a new 52-week high on Friday. -- Written by Michael Baron in New York. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Michael Baron.