RPT-Wall St Week Ahead: Stocks face the Fed, jobs and earnings

Sun Jul 28, 2013 11:21am EDT

By Caroline Valetkevitch

NEW YORK, July 28 (Reuters) - This week on Wall Street could be a summer blockbuster, with the marquee featuring a triple bill: the Fed, jobs and earnings.

Of the three, the Federal Reserve has the most potential to upset the market. The Federal Open Market Committee is expected to release a statement on Wednesday after a two-day meeting.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke jolted markets in late May by saying the U.S. central bank planned to ease back on its stimulus efforts once the economy improves. Investors have been glued to his every comment since then.

"The Fed can easily either scare investors or encourage investors without having to say very much," said Bryant Evans, portfolio manager at Cozad Asset Management in Champaign, Illinois.

It "tends to create the biggest knee-jerk reactions out of the market."

As part of its quantitative easing policy, the Fed has been buying Treasury debt and other bonds each month to keep interest rates low and promote growth.

Stocks have rallied for most of this year, with both the Dow and the Standard & Poor's 500 hitting record highs, partly because of the Fed's stimulus efforts.

The market slid after Bernanke's comments on May 22, with the S&P 500 dropping nearly 6 percent in the month that followed.

But remarks from Bernanke and other Fed officials since then have calmed the market and erased those declines.

Bernanke reassured markets on July 17, saying the timeline for winding down the U.S. central bank's stimulus program was not set in stone.

The S&P 500 is up 18.6 percent for the year so far.

Trading was more subdued last week, with more focus on earnings. The S&P 500 ended the week with a dip of just 0.03 percent, breaking its four-week winning streak.

While some analysts said the CBOE Volatility Index did not appear to be pricing in a lot of volatility, there could still be a shift in sentiment. On Friday, the VIX fell 1.9 percent to end at 12.72.

Frederic Ruffy, an options strategist for WhatsTrading.com in Chicago, said, "I do expect to see an increase in volatility" this week, "but that increase is coming after a week of very quiet trading."

Some market attention has also shifted to speculation over possible successors to Bernanke, though a senior White House official said on Friday that no announcement is imminent. President Barack Obama has signaled that Bernanke is likely to step down when his second four-year term as Fed chairman ends on Jan. 31. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and current Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen are among names cited.

IT'S ALL ABOUT JOBS

Friday will bring the Labor Department's July employment report.

The job market's recovery is seen as key to the future of Fed policy. The Fed has said it will keep interest rates at historic lows, where they have been for more than four years, until the U.S. unemployment rate drops to 6.5 percent.

Employers are expected to have added 185,000 jobs to their payrolls in July, according to economists polled by Reuters. That's slightly below June's count of 195,000 new positions.

The U.S. unemployment rate is expected to dip to 7.5 percent in July from 7.6 percent in June.

"July historically has been all over the place, in terms of employment. Factories often times do shutdowns in July, and there's turnover in agriculture," Evans said.

Analysts have worried that big gains in jobs numbers could prompt an early end to the Fed's bond buying, but stocks rose sharply earlier this month when June's payrolls far exceeded expectations.

While the jobs report is expected to be the biggest piece of economic news this week, the economic calendar includes data on gross domestic product and the Chicago Fed Midwest Manufacturing Index for June. The Institute for Supply Management's U.S. manufacturing index for July and monthly car sales will also be part of the mix.

EARNINGS SEASON'S SECOND HALF

With results already in from 259 of the S&P 500 companies, the earnings season has entered its second half.

But this week will still be one of the heaviest of the season, with 131 names from a wide range of industries due to report results, including Time Warner Cable, Chevron , Coach, U.S. Steel and Allstate.

Stronger-than-expected results since the start of the season have pushed up the growth estimate for the quarter. Second-quarter earnings are now expected to have increased 4.1 percent, up from an estimate of 2.8 percent a week ago, Thomson Reuters data showed.

Revenue growth, at 1.6 percent as of Friday, has not been strong, but 56 percent of companies so far are beating expectations, above the 48 percent average of the last four quarters.

"We are at all-time highs in a lot of these names, and I think this earnings season is supporting that," said Natalie Trunow, chief investment officer of equities at Calvert Investment Management, which has about $13 billion in assets.

She said that also means the market may be "vulnerable to some profit-taking."

(Wall St Week Ahead runs every Sunday. Questions or comments on this column can be emailed to: caroline.valetkevitch(at)thomsonreuters.com)