Retailers, Consumers to Take Spotlight

Retailers will take the spotlight next week as investors mull whether high energy costs have pinched consumers and clogged America's economic engine.

Retailers and their customers have received added attention lately amid concerns about a softer U.S. economy. About two-thirds of U.S. economic growth is fed by consumer spending.

Investors will get several glimpses of the retail sector's strength starting on Tuesday, when independent research company Redbook releases its U.S. chain-store sales.

Discount retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Target Corp. (TGT) are due to report quarterly earnings Thursday. That same day, a report on April retail sales is due at 8:30 a.m. Economists polled by Reuters expect that retail sales for April rose 0.7 percent — more than twice the gain of 0.3 percent in March.

"The market will be looking to see what consumers will be doing. Will they be encouraged enough to continue to spend?" said Anthony Chan, managing director and senior economist at JPMorgan Asset Management.

Earnings 'Lite' and Consumer Data

Although the earnings season is slowing down, some big names will release their quarterly report cards next week. Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO), the biggest maker of equipment that directs data over the Internet, will report results after the bell Tuesday. Dell Inc. (DELL) will issue earnings after the bell Thursday.

Market analysts have been generally pleased with corporate earnings in the first quarter. With reporting season winding down, economic indicators will get added attention next week from stock market investors.

Initial jobless claims arrive Thursday, with economists expecting the number to dip to 325,000 from 333,000 in the previous week.

After Friday's stronger-than-expected April employment data, investors will look to the weekly jobless claims for confirmation that the monthly jobs figure was not a one-time wonder.

The Labor Department (search) said Friday that non-farm payrolls grew to 274,000 in April, soaring above economists' expectations.

While that figure was a good sign for the strength of the economy, it may spur the argument that the economy is growing too fast and force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates at a faster-than-desired rate.

The consumer will come back into focus once again Friday when the University of Michigan releases its consumer sentiment index, with economists expecting a preliminary May reading of 88.8, compared with 87.7 in the previous period.

Oil Stays in the Picture

NYMEX crude oil futures ended slightly higher Friday on short covering near the close, beating back a move to pull prices below the psychologically important $50 mark.

Crude for June delivery rose 13 cents to settle at $50.96 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search). Though oil prices are still above $50, they are well below the record just above $58 hit in early April, which weighed heavily on the stock market.

As crude prices surged last month, investors feared that energy costs would hit consumers in the wallet and weigh on corporate profits.

"As long as oil remains within the tolerable range, I think the equity market can absorb it. I think that range is somewhere in the $50- to $55-a-barrel range — in that zone, I think it's not a situation that gets the market too excited," Chan said.

Stocks rose during the week, with the Dow ending up 1.5 percent, the S&P 500 up 1.3 percent and the Nasdaq up 2.4 percent.

Still, investors will look to see if the old Wall Street adage will gain any traction next week: Sell in May, then go away.

"I think the market will try to extend its rally into next week but I don't think it will go a whole lot higher," said Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist at Raymond James Financial.

"A lot of people will be watching Cisco to read the tea leaves from that one — as a prism into the tech/telecom space," Saut added. "I wouldn't be laying on positions here. I think you've only got maybe another 100 points (higher) on the Dow from here."