Stock-market rally faces Fed, tech earnings and jobs data in make-or-break week

Stock-market investors may take their cues from a series of important events in the week ahead, including the Federal Reserve’s monetary-policy meeting, a closely-watched December employment report and an onslaught of earnings from megacap technology names, which all promise insight into the state of the economy and interest-rate outlook. 

The benchmark S&P 500 index
SPX
Thursday closed at a record high for five straight trading days, the longest streak of its kind since November 2021. The index finished slightly lower on Friday, but clinched weekly gains of 1.1%, while the Nasdaq Composite
COMP
advanced 1% and the blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average
DJIA
gained 0.7% for the week, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

“What we’re seeing is the market participants are still playing catch-up from 2023, putting money on the sidelines to work,” said Robert Schein, chief investment officer at Blanke Schein Wealth Management.

“Wall Street is still back at it trying to eke out gains as quickly as possible, so it’s very short-term oriented until we get big market-moving events,” he said, adding that one of the events could well be “a disappointing Fed speech.”

Fed’s Powell has good reasons to push back on rate cuts

Expectations that the Fed would begin easing monetary policy as early as March after its fastest tightening cycle in four decades have helped fuel a rally in U.S. stock- and bond-markets. Investors now mostly expect five or six quarter-point rate cuts by December, bringing the fed-funds rate down to around 4-4.25% from the current range of 5.25-5.5%, according to the CME FedWatch Tool. 

See: Economic growth underlined by fourth-quarter GDP reinforces Fed’s cautious approach to rate cuts

While no interest-rate change is expected for the central bank’s first policy meeting this year, some market analysts think comments from Fed Chair Jerome Powell during his news conference on Wednesday are likely to shift the market’s expectations and push back against forecasts of a March cut. 

Thierry Wizman, global FX and interest rates strategist at Macquarie, said a stock-market rally, “too-dovish” signals from the Fed’s December meeting, a still-resilient labor market and escalating Middle East conflicts may indicate that Powell has to keep the “[monetary] tightening bias” next week. 

The rally in the stock market could “conceivably backfire” by virtue of a loosening of financial conditions, while the labor market has not weakened to the extent that the Fed officials would have hoped, Wizman told MarketWatch in a phone interview on Friday.

Further complicating things, fears that inflation could spike again in light of the conflict in the Middle East and Red Sea could reinforce Fed’s cautious approach to rate cuts, he said. 

See: Oil traders aren’t panicking over Middle East shipping attacks. Here’s why.

Meanwhile, a shift to “neutral bias” doesn’t automatically mean that the Fed will cut the policy rate soon since the Fed still needs to go to “easing bias” before actually trimming rates, Wizman said. “I think the market gets too dovish and does not realize the Fed has very, very good reasons to push this [the first rate cut] out to June.” 

Markets are ‘laser-focused’ on January employment report

Labor-market data could also sway U.S. financial markets in the week ahead, serving as the “big swing factor” for the economy, said Patrick Ryan, head of multi-asset solutions at Madison Investments. 

Investors have been looking for clear signs of a slowing labor market that could prompt the central bank to start cutting rates as early as March. That bet may be tested as soon as Friday with the release of nonfarm payroll data for January.

Economists polled by The Wall Street Journal estimate that U.S. employers added 180,000 jobs in January, down from a surprisingly strong 216,000 in the final month of 2023. The unemployment rate is expected to tick up to 3.8% from 3.7% in the prior month, keeping it near a half century low. Wage gains are forecast to cool a bit to 0.3% in January after a solid 0.4% gain in December. 

“That’s going to have everyone laser-focused,” Ryan told MarketWatch via phone on Thursday. “Anything that shows you real weakness in the labor market is going to question if the equity market is willing to trade at 20 plus times (earnings) this year.” The S&P 500 is trading at 20.2 times earnings as of Friday afternoon, according to FactSet data. 

Six of ‘Magnificent 7’ may continue to drive S&P 500 earnings higher

This coming week is also packed with earnings from some of the big tech names that have fueled the stock-market rally since last year. 

Five of the so-called Magnificent 7 technology companies will provide earnings starting from next Tuesday when Alphabet Inc.
GOOG,
+0.10%
and Microsoft Corp.
MSFT,
-0.23%
take center stage, followed by results from Apple Inc.
AAPL,
-0.90%,
Amazon.com
AMZN,
+0.87%
and Meta Platforms
META,
+0.24%
on Thursday. 

Of the remaining two members of the “Magnificent 7,” Tesla Inc.
TSLA,
+0.34%
has reported earlier this week with its results “massively disappointing” Wall Street, while Nvidia Corp.’s
NVDA,
-0.95%
results will be coming out at the end of February.

See: Here’s why Nvidia, Microsoft and other ‘Magnificent Seven’ stocks are back on top in 2024

A number of the companies in the “Magnificent 7” have seen their stock prices hit record-high levels in recent weeks, which could help to drive the value of the S&P 500 higher, said John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet Research. He also said these stocks are projected to drive earnings higher for the benchmark index in the fourth quarter of 2023.

In One Chart: Tech leads stock market’s January rally by wide margin. Watch out for February.

In aggregate, Nvidia, Alphabet, Amazon.com, Apple, Meta Platforms, and Microsoft are expected to report year-over-year earnings growth of 53.7% for the fourth quarter of last year, while excluding these six companies, the blended earnings decline for the remaining 494 companies in the S&P 500 would be 10.5%, Butters wrote in a Friday client note.

“Overall, the blended earnings decline for the entire S&P 500 for Q4 2023 is 1.4%,” he said. 

Check out! On Watch by MarketWatch, a weekly podcast about the financial news we’re all watching — and how that’s affecting the economy and your wallet. MarketWatch’s Jeremy Owens trains his eye on what’s driving markets and offers insights that will help you make more informed money decisions. Subscribe on Spotify and Apple.  

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