Signs of Economic Slowdown May Stall Record Highs

A rally in U.S. stocks that pushed the Dow industrials to a record may stall next week as signs of an economic slowdown curb the appetite for equities just as the third quarter's earnings season gets under way.

This week, the blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average hit a record closing high and an all-time intraday high for three days in a row in a rally driven by a sharp drop in oil prices and expectations that the Federal Reserve will not raise interest rates in the near future.

The rally also propelled the Standard & Poor's 500 Index

to fresh 5-1/2-year highs more than once.

But on Friday, weaker-than-expected September employment data, following a White House forecast for slower GDP growth late Thursday, brought the rally to a halt and may drag stocks lower in the week ahead, analysts said.

"We had a long run in equities and we're probably due for a sell no matter what the news is," said Elliot Spar, market strategist at Ryan Beck & Co., in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. "If the economy is going to go down, then you have to worry about earnings momentum."

Investors will scrutinize corporate profits next week, Spar said, as the earnings season heats up, with Alcoa Inc.(AA), Costco Wholesale Corp.(COST) PepsiCo Inc.(PEP) and General Electric Co.(GE) , slated to report.

Trading may be lighter than usual on Monday as the U.S. bond market will be closed in observance of the Columbus Day holiday. The U.S. stock market will remain open.


For the week, stocks rose -- with the Dow up 1.5 percent, the S&P 500 up 1 percent and the Nasdaq up 1.8 percent.

The Dow average closed at record highs three times in the week, with an intraday high on Thursday at 11,870.06, its highest level since Jan. 14, 2000. On Thursday, the S&P 500 closed at 1,353.22 and peaked intraday at 1,353.79 -- with those levels marking the highest since Feb. 5, 2001.

For the year to date, the Dow is up 10.6 percent, the S&P 500 is up 8.1 percent and the Nasdaq is up 4.3 percent.

After stocks broke new ground last week, some investors may be more cautious during the rest of October, known as "the jinx month," according to the Stock Trader's Almanac, because of stock market crashes in 1929 and 1987.

Volatility may increase early this week, traders said, with the possibility of a nuclear weapon test by North Korea over the weekend.

"If they do go ahead with the test, the stock market may get a bit more skittish," said Tim Smalls, head of U.S. stock trading at brokerage firm Execution LLC in Greenwich, Connecticut. "It's just one thing we don't need right now."

The White House said Friday that it had no new information to disclose about whether a nuclear test was being planned, but said North Korea should not carry out the test.

On Friday, U.S. crude oil for November delivery settled at $59.76 per barrel -- down 5 percent for the week. NYMEX crude is down 24 percent from its record set in July.


On Tuesday, the third-quarter earnings season kicks off for blue chips with Alcoa reporting results, followed by General Electric Friday.

Other companies reporting results next week include PepsiCo, M&T Bank Corp.(MTB) , Yum! Brands Inc.(YUM) , Monsanto Co.(MON) and Safeway Inc.(SWY)

"Earnings have been on the back burner, and they move to the front very soon," said Michael Panzner, vice president of sales trading at Collins Stewart in New York. "I have a funny feeling things haven't been particularly great."

S&P 500 companies are expected to achieve third-quarter earnings growth of 14.1 percent from a year earlier, according to Reuters Estimates. Meanwhile, pre-announcement activity for U.S. companies stayed negative for the week ended Sept. 29.


Next week's economic data could help investors assess the likely magnitude of consumer spending before the start of the holiday season as well as the Fed's view of the economy.

Tuesday, the government releases its report on wholesale inventories for August. Economists polled by Reuters expect inventories to rise 0.7 percent, down from a 0.8 percent gain in the previous month.

Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee's Sept. 20 meeting will be released on Wednesday and the Fed's Beige Book -- a survey of economic conditions in the Fed's 12 districts -- will follow on Thursday.

The international trade deficit for August, also due Thursday, is forecast at $66.70 billion, down from $68 billion in July, according to the Reuters poll.

A slew of data is due Friday, including import prices, retail sales and the University of Michigan's reading on consumer confidence.

Import prices likely shrank 1.2 percent in September, after a 0.8 percent gain in the previous month, according to the estimates of economists surveyed by Reuters.

Retail sales for September are forecast to rise 0.2 percent, matching a 0.2 percent gain in August, according to economists polled by Reuters. Excluding auto sales, September's retail sales are seen unchanged, compared with a 0.2 percent gain the previous month.

The preliminary October reading of the University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index probably will show a rise to 86.5 from 85.4 in September, according to the Reuters poll.