Traders to Watch Bonds, Oil Prices

U.S. stocks could climb this week, with analysts expecting companies to report strong profits as the quarterly earnings season gets into high gear.

But traders will keep an eye on rising oil prices and bond yields, which could limit any market gains.

If earnings and outlooks top analysts' forecasts, that could relieve some of the anxiety about inflation.

Investors are on inflation alert after oil went back up to nearly $70 a barrel last week and benchmark bond yields jumped above 5 percent for the first time in almost four years.

Wall Street will get March inflation data this week, with the U.S. Producer Price Index due Tuesday and the U.S. Consumer Price Index Wednesday.

Stocks rallied through March in anticipation of a strong earnings season, driving major U.S. stock indexes up near five-year highs.

"The rally has been based on strong earnings for the first quarter against higher energy prices and interest rates," said Marc Pado, U.S. market strategist for Cantor Fitzgerald & Co. "That's the battle. And earnings tend to win out in April, historically."

Tech bellwethers Intel Corp. and Apple Computer Inc., plus some big Internet names, Google Inc. , Yahoo Inc. and eBay Inc., will report quarterly results this week.

A flurry of earnings reports will come from the banking sector, with earnings due from Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., both Dow components. Results are also scheduled from Bank of America Corp., Merrill Lynch & Co. and other financial services companies.

Banks are expected to post better first-quarter earnings, but interest-rate pressures and slowing consumer loan growth could weigh on the sector's profits.

Oil, Rates and Gold

With crude oil prices near record levels, the shift in focus to earnings may not be enough to drive stocks much higher this week.

"As long as oil is trading near $70 a barrel, interest rates on the 10-year (note) are around 5 percent and gold hovers at $600 an ounce, it will be difficult for equities to make headway," said Michael James, senior trader at Wedbush Morgan, a regional investment bank in Los Angeles.

When Wall Street wrapped up the holiday-shortened week Thursday, only the Dow Jones industrial average was higher — up 0.16 percent. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index

fell 0.49 percent, while the Nasdaq Composite Index

ended the week down 0.55 percent.

The NYMEX May crude oil contract ended Thursday at $69.32 a barrel. That's near the record U.S. futures price of $70.85 set Aug. 30 after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and hit Gulf Coast oil rigs.

Rising energy prices worry stock investors because they can cut corporate profits by driving up costs for transportation, raw materials and electricity.

What's more, the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note Thursday hit 5.053 percent, its highest since June 2002.

In New York, the COMEX June gold contract ended Thursday at $600.10 an ounce. That wasn't far below its peak on April 11 at $608.40 — the highest for gold futures since January 1981, when the prime rate was about 21 percent.

While U.S. financial markets were closed for Good Friday, the Federal Reserve reported that U.S. industrial production and capacity use rose in March. (See story )

Dana Johnson, chief economist at Comerica Bank in Detroit, said the industrial output report "keeps [the Fed] directly on path to tighten in May and leaves the debate on whether they will tighten in June certain to be a very lively one."

This week's data on the Producer Price Index and the Consumer Price Index for March will give investors more insight into the outlook for further rate increases.

Economists polled by Reuters forecast a gain of 0.4 percent in the overall PPI in March and the same increase in the overall CPI. They see core PPI and core CPI, which exclude volatile food and energy prices, each up 0.2 percent.

"That's another point for caution," said Frank Lesh, a futures analyst and broker at Future Path Trading in Chicago.

"The inflation data hasn't been a problem as of yet, but anything that suggests the Fed will continue to raise rates would tend to be a bit negative for equities."

On Tuesday afternoon, the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee's March 27-28 meeting will be released.

Great Expectations

First-quarter earnings are projected to have risen 11.4 percent from a year ago, according to Reuters Estimates. But early indications suggest the growth could be stronger.

Through April 7, a total of 31 S&P 500 companies had reported their quarterly earnings and of those, 67.7 percent topped analysts' estimates, according to Reuters Estimates.

"It really does reflect the focus of American businesses on profitability because this is now substantially into this economic recovery and companies are still producing results that are substantially above long-term averages," said Ned Riley, chief executive of Riley Asset Management in Boston.

This week's earnings blitz will include reports from Dow components Johnson & Johnson , Merck & Co. , Pfizer Inc. , General Motors Corp. , Honeywell International Inc. and Coca-Cola Co.