Crude Oil Price to Take Center Stage

How long stocks can rise in the face of record high oil prices will be the burning question for investors next week.

Commodity-related shares pushed up the major stock indexes this week as crude gained four days out of five and closed at a record high above $58 on Friday. Steeper oil prices usually drive stocks down on concern that they will eat away at consumers' discretionary income and crimp corporate profits.

"We've had a pretty big run in oil prices and it hasn't seemed to have any impact," said Alfred Kugel, chief investment officer at Atlantic Trust/Stein Roe in Chicago. "The market is not marching to that drummer."

For the week, stocks rose. The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average (search) rose 1.05 percent, while the broad Standard & Poor's 500 Index (search) gained 1.57 percent, and the tech-laced Nasdaq Composite Index (search) finished the week up 1.31 percent.

The S&P 500 also pushed back up into positive territory for the year, up 0.42 percent.

Crude oil for July delivery settled Friday at a record $58.47 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search) on concern about a terrorist threat that closed the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, an OPEC member. Earlier in the day, July crude set a fresh intraday record of $58.60, the highest price since oil futures began trading on NYMEX in 1983.

"I do think we need to have oil come off a bit for the market to keep moving" higher, said Todd Leone, head of listed trading at S.G. Cowen in New York. "Once we start getting closer to $60 a barrel, it definitely hurts the economy -- it gets a little inflationary."

Higher oil prices may give the Federal Reserve (search) reason to end its cycle of interest-rate increases by the end of this summer, said Joe Keating, chief investment officer of the Asset Management Group at AmSouth Bank in Birmingham, Ala.

Since last June, the Fed has raised its benchmark fed funds rate by a quarter-percentage point eight straight times to 3 percent from a historic low of 1 percent. The Fed's rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee next meets on June 29-30.

"One hunch is that the Fed will be done raising rates after the August meeting, and once the market believes they are really close, that's when we can really get into positive territory," said Keating, who helps manage $16.5 billion.

Traders expect the Fed to raise the fed funds rate by another quarter percentage point at the June meeting and again in August, interest-rate futures contracts show.

Investors will have to wait until Friday for any potentially market-moving economic data when the Commerce Department reports new orders for long-lasting U.S.-made goods.

Economists forecast a 1.0 percent rise in durable goods orders in May, and excluding transportation items, a 0.5 percent gain, according to a Reuters survey.

Among the handful of companies reporting earnings are Cincinnati-based grocer Kroger Co. (KR) and investment bank Morgan Stanley (MWD), whose stock finished the week up 3 percent after CEO Philip Purcell announced his retirement Monday.

Investors also may watch for FedEx Corp.'s (FDX) earnings Thursday as a gauge of national business activity.

"A lot of us look at the amount of shipping that's going on as a pretty good pulse of the overall economic environment," said John Caldwell, chief investment strategist at McDonald Financial Group, a Cleveland company that manages $30 billion. "If you're making stuff, you have to send it somewhere."

If company forecasts before the quarterly earnings season turn negative, "that could erase the positive trends pretty quickly," Caldwell said. "We all know that earnings growth is slowing. We're not going to grow earnings at 20 percent like last year."