NEW YORK: After suffering their worst two weeks of the year, stocks will look to quarterly earnings to determine whether the recent pullback has been exhausted or more losses are justified.
Alcoa Inc opened the earnings season with a bang, reporting a first-quarter profit on Tuesday instead of the expected loss. That positive surprise foretold a trend. Of the 32 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported earnings so far, Thomson Reuters data showed that 75 percent - or two dozen - have beaten Wall Street's expectations.
Next week will start one of the two busiest weeks of the quarterly earnings reporting period. About 86 companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 are expected to post results, according to Thomson Reuters Director's Report.
At Friday's close, both the Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> and the S&P 500 <.SPX> wrapped up their worst two-week percentage drops since late November. The Dow and the S&P each fell 2.7 percent for the two weeks from the close on March 30.
"It seems like everybody's been waiting for this so-called correction to potentially get back into the stock market," said Kei Sasaki, managing director of listed equities at PineBridge Investments in New York, which has $67 billion in assets under management.
"But I'd point to the extremely high levels of correlation within equity markets that we saw in 2011. That was coupled with heightened volatility in 2011," Sasaki added. "Even with the down moves in the market over the past several days, the volatility has stayed relatively subdued.
"The correlations on a moving average have also stayed relatively subdued, which tells us that investors are still looking at the market in a fundamental way that they haven't for the past year. So if earnings come in positive for the first quarter, we think they will get rewarded for it," he said.
Among the marquee names on next week's earnings calendar are 10 Dow components: Intel Corp , Johnson & Johnson , Coca-Cola Co , DuPont , Microsoft , The Travelers Companies Inc , Verizon Communications Inc , American Express Co , General Electric Co , and McDonald's Corp .
Financials will be eyed next week on the heels of Friday's results from JPMorgan Chase & Co and Wells Fargo & Co with both big banks' earnings exceeding forecasts. In the coming week, earnings are expected from the likes of Citigroup Inc , Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley .
RIDING THE EURO-ZONE ROLLERCOASTER
But even with earnings attracting investors' attention, equities remain vulnerable to flare-ups in the euro zone as the bloc continues to grapple with its debt crisis.
"Earnings are beating expectations. Outlooks still look pretty optimistic," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank in Chicago.
"Overall pretty good news, but it takes one lousy headline out of Europe to trump the whole thing."
Equities snapped a two-day advance on Friday, pulled lower as the rising cost of insuring Spanish debt against default increased concerns about Europe's financial health.
The benchmark S&P 500 rose for two consecutive days this week after a drop of more than 4 percent in the previous five sessions - opening the possibility that equities had seen the pullback many analysts were expecting after the S&P 500 climbed 12 percent in the first quarter.
The S&P 500 remained near its 50-day moving average, a key technical level that could help indicate the next direction for stocks.
"Technically, we were due for a correction, we started that correction, and the market will always come up with reasons and find excuses that fundamentally will trigger what should happen technically - and it's happened almost perfectly," said Paul Mendelsohn, chief investment strategist of Windham Financial Services in Charlotte, Vermont.
"How far backwards we are going to fall remains to be seen - we've got support at that 1,358 area, and we are playing around the 50-day moving average area."
On Friday, the S&P 500 closed at 1,370.26.
CHECKING THE ECONOMY'S VITAL SIGNS
The data will also get plenty of scrutiny next week for signals on the U.S. economy's health after a weaker-than-expected payrolls report during the Good Friday holiday cast doubt on the strength of the recovery.
Economic indicators due next week include the Empire State and Philadelphia Federal Reserve's manufacturing surveys, retail sales for March, housing starts and existing home sales.
"It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a soft patch, if this unemployment number is a harbinger of more," said Stephen Massocca, managing director of Wedbush Morgan in San Francisco.
The March nonfarm payrolls report, which was released on Good Friday when the cash U.S. stock market was closed, showed just 120,000 jobs added last month. That figure fell far short of the forecast for 203,000 new jobs and raised questions about whether the recovery in the U.S. labor market was stalling.
Sasaki of PineBridge Investments pointed out that "employment's been under everybody's watch since last Friday. We still continue to see improvement. We believe it was a hiccup but in aggregate, we think the economic recovery is still continuing to improve."
But even if earnings are solid and data shows improvement, markets could be susceptible to further losses if more signs of fiscal distress in the euro zone emerge.
"You have to put Europe, Spain and Italy, on any 'watch list' at this point. That may even be more important than earnings," Massocca said.
"It's not really a liquidity issue. It's a solvency issue, and there are a lot of political whirlwinds around that, and there are a lot of concerns that the political will to actually do something is not going to be. We shall see."