Jobs Data, Asian Markets to Call Stocks' Tune

Licking their wounds after stiff losses, jittery investors will be looking for relief next week in the form of reassurance that the U.S. economy will keep growing at a moderate pace.

They will also be nervously watching for news on how the Asian markets fare on Monday with the first reports arriving in U.S. time zones late on Sunday. This week's turmoil in global markets began with a steep slide in China.

One of the most closely watched U.S. indicators, monthly payroll data, does not come until Friday. A Reuters survey of economists has the median forecast calling for a rise of 100,000 in nonfarm payrolls in February, and the jobless rate holding steady at 4.6 percent.

"Clearly, the direction of employment growth will be important from a short-term trading perspective," said Wayne Wicker, chief investment officer for the Vantagepoint Funds, a $29 billion complex, in Washington, D.C.

The Institute for Supply Management will issue a report Monday showing activity in the non-manufacturing, or services, sector. The median forecast calls for the index to slip to 57.2 in February from 59.0 in January, the Reuters poll said.

This week, the ISM's report on manufacturing activity showed an unexpected rise in February after a decline in January.

That report was one of the few bright spots in a week that featured disappointing economic news and the sell-off in stock markets around the world. A widely heard explanation was that investors were fleeing risky assets.

A report that U.S. durable goods orders fell by a steep 7.8 percent in January spooked investors on Tuesday. Another report showed the U.S. economy, as measured by gross domestic product, growing at a 2.2 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter — only a bit better than the 2 percent pace in the third quarter.

The Shock From Shanghai

Among the varying explanations for the sharp drop in stock prices was the common thread of a flight from risky assets. And Tuesday's nearly 9 percent drop in China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index — its biggest slide in a decade — looked like the first crack in the dam.

"The investment thesis for a lot of emerging markets has been escalating growth, based on GDP in the 9 to 10 percent range for China," Wicker said. "Investors are clearly on the edge of their seats these days, given what's happened in China."

For the week, the blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average

lost 4.2 percent and the broad Standard & Poor's 500 index slid 4.4 percent. The Nasdaq Composite Index tumbled 5.9 percent.

Trade Gap and Costco Too

The monthly report on the international trade deficit is due on Friday, coming out one hour before the stock market's open, the same time as the payroll data.

The median forecast in the Reuters poll is a trade gap of $59.7 billion in January, down from $61.2 billion in December.

Other data coming during the week will include two reports on Tuesday — factory orders plus productivity and unit labor costs — and on Wednesday — it will be time for the monthly consumer credit report.

The calendar or quarterly earnings reports is finally starting to dwindle. There are only a few S&P 500 companies reporting results, among them National Semiconductor Corp. (NSM), Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) and Brown-Forman Corp. (BF-A).

According to Reuters Estimates, fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are seen rising 10.9 percent from a year earlier. The data, as of Feb. 23, includes companies that have already reported earnings and estimates for the remainder.

Looking at Japan and China

With the economic calendar not as heavy as it was this week and earnings reports becoming fewer in number, Wall Street may well be looking elsewhere for direction.

"In my view, it's not really the economic data that's been driving this market. There are other worldwide issues," said Paul Mendelsohn, chief investment strategist at Windham Financial Services in Charlotte, Vt.

One of those issues, Mendelsohn said, is an unwinding of the yen carry trade as Japan raises interest rates.

Investors have been borrowing funds in yen and redeploying them in other assets, a source of liquidity that has fueled speculation in the stock market and other asset classes, according to many analysts.

"It seems that traders that are in the carry trade are obviously continuing their mass exodus," said Phil Flynn, vice president and senior market analyst at Alaron Trading in Chicago.

Flynn said some of the carry trade profits were parked in gold and silver futures, and the unwinding of these trades has had an impact on those markets. In New York, gold for April delivery on the COMEX settled at $644.10 an ounce, down $21.00, while the May silver contract ended at $12.96 an ounce, down 69 cents.

Some investors may have their eyes on the National People's Congress, China's parliament. The legislative body begins its annual session in Beijing Monday. Several items on the agenda, such as property rights, could affect investors.

Oil prices also will continue to command attention. U.S. crude for April delivery settled on Friday at $61.64 a barrel, down 36 cents, with some of the selling reflecting investors' fears of an economic slowdown.