Housing Sector to Fuel Stocks Anxiety

The anxiety level on Wall Street may escalate this week with several indicators due on the housing sector and a Federal Reserve meeting that most agree will end with no change in short-term interest rates.

The week begins with nationwide demonstrations by war protesters marking the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war. One of those protests is planned for outside the New York Stock Exchange before the opening bell.

A key piece of data will be February housing starts, due Tuesday morning one hour before the start of regular trading.

In January, the Commerce Department said that housing starts fell 14.3 percent to an annual rate of 1.408 million units.

In a Reuters poll of economists, the consensus is that the February number will rebound a bit to 1.450 million units.

The data includes building permits, which are expected to fall to an annual rate of 1.550 million units from January's pace of about 1.57 million units.

Money manager Sean Clark, who considers housing to be a "major risk for the economy," noted that the expected increase in housing starts represents a small bounce from a weak January number.

Clark, chief investment officer of Clark Capital Management Group in Philadelphia, said a concern is that the housing slowdown will have a greater impact on the general economy than people were expecting at the beginning of the year.

Any bad news about the housing sector has the potential to roil the stock market some more after last week's steady drumbeat of headlines about problems in the subprime mortgage market, which caters to borrowers with weak credit.

For the week, stocks fell. The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average lost 1.4 percent for the week, while the S&P 500 fell 1.1 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index slipped 0.6 percent.

Existing Home Sales on Tap

On Friday, the National Association of Realtors reports on sales of existing homes. The median forecast in the Reuters poll is a drop to an annual rate of 6.31 million units in February from 6.46 million in January.

On Monday, the National Association of Home Builders is scheduled to report its latest survey of market conditions.

The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index is expected to fall to 38 in March from 40 in February. The index has climbed back from a 15-year low of 30 in September 2006.

A big change in the housing picture has been the deterioration in subprime mortgages, which are loans to borrowers with shaky credit.

That deterioration pushed the proportion of mortgages in the initial stages of foreclosure to the highest rate on record, according to a report last week from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The problems in subprime lending, exacerbating an already weak housing picture, have helped bring down stocks of home builders, certain retailers, and financial services companies.

One of the biggest U.S. home builders, KB Home , reports earnings for its fiscal first quarter on Thursday.

No Fed Rescue — Yet

Even as the housing slump has become a cloud over the stock market, few are expecting the Federal Reserve to put out any fires out this week.

The Fed meets for two days and will announce its decision at the conclusion Wednesday afternoon.

The Fed has kept the benchmark federal funds rate target at 5.25 percent after last raising interest rates in June 2006.

Chris Hyzy, managing director and investment strategist for U.S. Trust in New York, said there may be some subtle changes in the wording of the Fed's policy statements, but a cut in rates is not likely until this summer.

Hyzy, who expects four quarter-point rate cuts by the end of the year, has been telling clients to modestly overweight stocks in their portfolios.

"We would utilize the current period of risk aversion to position for the relief rally we expect when the Fed eventually shifts gears," he wrote in a recent report.

Elaborating in a telephone interview, Hyzy said that within equities, he prefers large-cap growth stocks.

"If you're going to be invested in equities, you need to be invested in higher quality issues that have solid balance sheets, dividends that will be stable, and produce a return even if the market is flat," he said.

Other economic data expected during the week include a report from the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank on Midwest business conditions on Monday, and a report on leading indicators of the economy on Thursday.

From Morgan Stanley to FedEx

Earnings announcements of interest this week include Morgan Stanley on Wednesday. Several Wall Street firms have recently reported solid quarterly results, but investors have been cool to their stocks due to concerns that the subprime woes could spread through the financial system.

Adobe Systems Inc Inc. and Oracle Corp. report on Tuesday.

FedEx Corp. reports earnings on Wednesday and food company General Mills Inc. releases results on Thursday.