NEW YORK – For months, investors have seen the silver lining in every cloud, but a bucket of economic data this week may remind them an anticipated rebound is still far off, raining on Wall Street's recent rally and sending stocks lower.
Investors pinning their hopes on a recovery by the middle of 2002 could get a dose of reality about the near-term outlook from upcoming economic statistics -- including Friday's key U.S. jobs data and a closely watched U.S. manufacturing sector report due on Monday.
"We've got an enormous amount of economic data coming out, and I think it's going to prove to be a little disappointing," said Jeff Kleintop, chief investment strategist for PNC Advisors. "The market has gotten a little bit ahead of itself in anticipating this sharp economic rebound, which I don't think is going to happen until mid-next year."
Weekend events overseas will only further dampen Wall Street's mood when the market reopens, as tensions grow in the Middle East following deadly suicide bombings in Israel and as Argentina's economic woes deepen.
The schedule of earnings reports is extremely sparse this week. One name of note is National Semiconductor, which said earlier this month it is on track to meet previously announced estimates for a loss and a pickup in sales.
But the corporate confession season -- when companies give clues on what their earnings will look like -- also heats up this week as Corporate America wraps up the year's final quarter, adding another layer of uncertainty.
So Far, So Fast
The Standard & Poor's 500 Index has vaulted 18 percent since hitting a three-year low on Sept. 21, in the wake of the devastating Sept. 11 attacks, while the Nasdaq Composite index has climbed almost 36 percent. In November, major market indexes wrapped up their biggest monthly gain since April.
"The market's come awfully far, awfully fast here," Jon Brorson, director of equities for Northern Trust, said. "People are very nervous."
Brorson added some traders were beginning to bet a drop in the tech stocks is forthcoming, particularly in the semiconductor sector, which has jumped about 40 percent in just two months.
Stocks' recent strong gains began to erode last week as investors grew more cautious. The S&P 500 fell nearly 1 percent for the week, while the Dow Jones industrial average slipped 1.1 percent. The Nasdaq Composite Index, however, rose 1.4 percent for the week.
News on Sunday of Palestinian suicide bombings that left at least 25 people dead and many more wounded, would put more pressure on stocks at the beginning of the week, analysts said. The attacks mark one of the bloodiest phases in the 14-month Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
However, the impact will likely be muted.
"Unfortunately, we've gotten used to this type of violence in the Middle East," Peter Gottlieb, portfolio manager at First Albany Asset Management, said.
Also over the weekend, Argentina introduced sweeping banking restrictions amid fears a run on the nation's banks could topple the nation's already troubled economy.
The news comes as little surprise to investors, however, since Argentina, Latin America's No. 3 economy, has been struggling for months to avoid the messiest default in history on its $132 billion public debt, making its impact on Wall Street limited, analysts said.
Data at Center Stage
Wall Street will be tuned in for any indications of how the holiday shopping season is shaping up, hoping it will bode well for consumer spending, a force that powers about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.
Investors are on edge with worries that growing unemployment could put an economic rebound in jeopardy, if it prompts consumers to curb their spending. For that reason, Friday's monthly U.S. non-farm payrolls report will be among the week's most eagerly anticipated data.
Economists in a Reuters survey predicted U.S. payrolls shrank by just 189,000 in November, after a massive drop of 415,000 in October. But they also said the unemployment rate would tick up to 5.6 percent in November from 5.4 percent in October.
"I can't imagine investors being overly aggressive ahead of what is sure to be a very ugly jobs report for November," Wall Street Strategies analyst Charles Payne said.
Other data, including the closely watched National Association of Purchasing Management's surveys on the manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors, as well as personal income and spending data, revised third-quarter productivity and unit labor costs data, and October factory orders, will help fill in the pieces of the U.S. economic puzzle.
The NAPM manufacturing sector survey is expected to show improvement in the beleaguered industrial sector in November, gaining to 42.7 from 39.8 in October, according to a Reuters survey. But on Friday, a Chicago purchasing managers index foreshadowed further weakness after its November reading fell to its lowest level since July.
Storm Clouds Still Loom
The recent economic news has been far from upbeat. The number of Americans lining for jobless benefits soared in the past week. And while spending has remained resilient, consumer confidence, by some accounts, is sagging.
Moreover, the government said on Friday the U.S. economy shrank at its fastest pace in more than a decade in the third quarter, with gross domestic product falling 1.1 percent. On Monday, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a panel of economists considered the official arbiter of the nation's business cycles, said the economy is officially in a recession that began in March.
With the Federal Reserve's next policy-setting meeting about a week away, investors will be hanging on Fed officials' every word, looking for clues to the central bank's next move.
On Monday, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan will lecture on "The Challenges of Globalization" at George Washington University. The Fed has cut interest rates 10 times so far this year to help cushion the U.S. economy's fall. Some analysts believe the poor GDP figure released on Friday could prompt the Fed to cut rates for an 11th time this year, when its policy-makers meet again on Dec. 11.
December is traditionally Wall Street's best month of the year, with gains for the month averaging 1.9 percent from 1950 to 1999, according to the Stock Trader's Almanac.
But money managers shuffling positions ahead of year-end to dress up their portfolios -- by dumping their losing stocks and snapping up the year's gainers -- could cause volatility as the last month of the year gets under way.
"We have some choppiness ahead of us before the end of the year," said Alan Ackerman, market strategist with brokerage Fahnestock & Co.