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Economic data could trump all else in the week ahead, after hiring in February appeared to fall off a cliff, raising new concerns about the economy.
January's delayed retail sales report, durable goods and February's CPI inflation data all take on added significance, particularly since there has been a mixed stream of economic data lately.
The report Friday of just 20,000 nonfarm payrolls created in February was shockingly weak, compared to the expected 180,000 jobs. The data reflected slower growth, but also possible ill effects of bad weather, the government shutdown and other statistical abnormalities.
But economists, while doubting the report, also said they are paying close attention to incoming data for signs the report is either an outlier or the beginning of a broader more negative trend.
"You go from 310,000 jobs to 20,000. That doesn't seem logical," said Ed Keon, chief investment strategist at QMA. " I think we look back over the past few months and we had that very disappointing December retail sales number. That seemed a bit of a fluke...But we're quants. You can't just toss out the data that doesn't agree with your existing view."
The other significant market factor in the week ahead could be any developments on U.S.-China trade negotiations.
But the overriding issue is whether the global economy is slowing, particularly as China's data continues to look weak.
Not all was negative in the U.S. February employment report. Economists said wage growth of 3.4 percent year over year and a lower 3.8 percent unemployment rate were encouraging, as were other data. The report also followed an unusually strong January number of 311,000, after revisions.
The 35-day government shutdown delayed many reports and may have affected the quality of others, economists said. The weakening trend in the first quarter, while expected, is hard to get a handle on, and while it's expected to be temporary, every negative report increases doubts.
"Anybody who is mentioning the word 'recession' is wrong. The economy invariably slows in Q1. What we don't know is it more than usual, and the poor quality and volatility in the data since the government shutdown has made it impossible to assess," said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies.
First out of the gate Monday will be retail sales, which fell 1.2 percent in December. January's headline number is expected to fall by 0.1 percent but excluding autos and gasoline, sales are expected to rise by 0.7 percent, according to Refinitiv.
Economists say the big drop in retail sales for December makes the comparisons in the first quarter GDP report more difficult. First quarter growth is widely expected to be below 2 percent but the economy is expected to bounce back above 2 percent growth in the second quarter.
"We are already pretty weak [in the first quarter] because of the retail sales number. The arithmetic that goes into adding up GDP, you're in such a hole to start the quarter because you ended so weak," said Kevin Cummins, senior economist at NatWest Markets.
Durable goods for January is reported Wednesday, and economists are watching to see what happened to business spending in that report. At the end of the quarter, expenditures slowed down, yet in the fourth quarter GDP report, business spending was surprisingly strong.
CPI on Tuesday is also important. With the Fed now signaling it is pausing in its rate hiking, any surprise pickup in inflation would be significant.
"Inflation data is important from the Fed's perspective, but I don't think it's going to be something that's going to spook them if we get a stronger report," said Cummins. "We expect 0.3 on headline, core 0.2 percent. Year-over-year core would stay at 2.2 percent for the third month. It doesn't seem like something that's market moving if our forecast is realized."
The Fed will largely be out of the picture in the coming week, with Fed officials in a quiet period ahead of the next meeting March 19 and 20. But Fed Chairman Jerome Powell was to appear in an interview on "60 Minutes" Sunday.
Stocks were lower in the past week, with the S&P 500, Nasdaq and Dow all heading for their worst week since Dec. 21, right before the Christmas Eve plunge. The market reacted to signs of slowing global growth and concerns the trade talks would not lead to deal.
Keon said the market could be disappointed by a trade deal, unless it is is broad and includes protection for intellectual property and an end of Chinese transfers of U.S. technology. White House top economic advisor Larry Kudlow said Friday that President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping could meet later this month but nothing is in "cement."
Speaking on CNBC, he pointed to overnight economic data from China that showed exports there plunged 20.7 percent last month from a year ago, missing expectations by a wide margin.
"We have hurt them," Kudlow said on "Squawk on the Street." Both sides have indicated they hope to reach a deal. "We are still negotiating by phone and teleconference."
Keon said a sweeping deal, with an end to tariffs and a hardline on technology, would drive the market higher.
"If you get a real deal, you would get a big response. I would not really count on that as a big positive catalyst for stock prices, but it's possible. If the whole thing falls apart, in that case it would be pretty negative for the market, particularly if we increased tariffs," said Keon.
Trump has held off another round of tariffs, expected March 1, due to progress in the talks.
What to Watch
Earnings: Coupa Software, Casey's General
8:30 a.m. Retail sales (January)
10:00 a.m. Business inventories
Earnings: Dick's Sporting Goods, Volkswagen, Momo, ZTO Express
6:00 a.m. NFIB survey
8:30 a.m. CPI
2:00 p.m. Federal budget
Earnings: Adidas, Tribune Publishing, Cloudera, Domo
8:30 a.m. Durable goods
8:30 a.m. PPI 10:00 a.m. Construction spending
Earnings: Ulta Beauty, Jabil Circuit, Broadcom, Dollar General, Oracle, Azul, Embraer, Zumiez
8:30 a.m. Jobless claims
8:30 a.m. Import prices
10:00 a.m. New home sales
8:30 a.m. Empire state manufacturing
9:15 a.m. Industrial production
10:00 a.m. Consumer sentiment
10:00 a.m. JOLTS
4:00 p.m. TIC data