Wall Street faces data on housing, personal spending

Many are hoping the data show at least a few clues that an economic rebound is on the horizon.

money good 88 (photo credit: )
money good 88
(photo credit: )
SHARES WALL STREET The market was closed for Good Friday. Few investors expect this week's readings on the US housing market and personal spending to be especially strong. But many are hoping the data show at least a few clues that an economic rebound is on the horizon. More than six months have passed since the Federal Reserve started lowering interest rates; usually, this is the point when there's evidence that a rate cut is having a salutary effect on the broader economy. The stock market has begun to act as if it believes the Fed's rate and lending actions are helping to revive the limping financial system, but investors aren't completely confident yet. Seesaw trading led to big gains in stocks this week, but the intense volatility indicated that investors are still on edge. Wall Street is still uneasy because it's too soon to say that the credit market freeze-up is over. The credit markets have shown signs of improvement recently after several moves by the Fed, but it not enough for the market's nerves to calm. "With the credit markets, every time you whack a mole in place, something else seems to pop up," said Bill Stone, PNC Wealth Management's chief investment strategist. He also said, though, "You get the feeling that you have a hard time making the case that the entire financial system is going to collapse." The Fed has had a busy couple of weeks working to keep the ailing US banking system operating. It's backed JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s buyout of Bear Stearns Cos., expanded its lending policies to more types of financial institutions, started accepting different types of mortgage-backed collateral and slashed its key federal funds rate by three-quarters of a percentage point. The central bank's target for the fed funds rate - the rate banks charge each other for overnight loans - is now at 2.25 percent, its lowest point in more than three years. The Fed also lowered the discount rate, the interest it charges bank for loans, and encouraged investment banks such as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley to borrow billions of dollars. Last week, Wall Street finished sharply higher, encouraged by the Fed's moves as well as better-than-expected quarterly results from Lehman, Goldman and Morgan Stanley. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 3.43%, the Standard & Poor's 500 index increased 3.21%, and the Nasdaq composite index added 2.06%. This week brings a slew of data, which analysts do not predict will show much recovery. And meanwhile, Wall Street will have to keep an eye on commodities prices; crude oil and gold have retreated from record levels, leaving potential room for further rate cuts, but could certainly surge again. The National Association of Realtors reports Monday on February's sales of existing homes. According to the median estimate of economists polled by Thomson Financial/IFR, the market anticipates existing home sales to have fallen last month compared to January. And later in the week, the Commerce Department reports on February's new home sales - which are also expected to show a decrease - and S&P and Case/Shiller release their January home price index. The Commerce Department's personal spending data scheduled for Friday is apt to be weak, too, but not suggestive of a plunge. Economists have predicted that US spending in February rose by 0.1%, incomes rose by 0.3%, and that the core personal consumption expenditures deflator - a key gauge of inflation - edged up 0.1%. Other economic reports on tap next week include the Commerce Department's February gauge of durable goods orders and its final reading on fourth-quarter gross domestic product. And perhaps just as important as the data will be what this week's stream of speeches from Fed officials reveal about the prospect of further rate cuts or more unconventional moves to keep the credit markets liquid. "I don't know how many tricks they still have up their sleeve," PNC's Stone said, "though they've surprised me so far." The Dow on Thursday rose 261.66, or 2.16%, to 12,361.32, and gained 3.43% for the week. Broader stock indicators also advanced. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 31.09, or 2.39%, to 1,329.51, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 48.15, or 2.18%, to 2,258.11. For the week, the S&P rose 3.21%, while the Nasdaq gained 2.06%. Though the week was a shortened one for Wall Street, the volatility packed into four days made it feel much longer. Thursday's gains came a day after a steep drop that eroded most of a 420-point gain in the Dow on Tuesday - the biggest in more than five years - following the Fed's decision to lower its benchmark interest rate by 0.75 percentage point to 2.25%. EUROPE Markets were also closed for the Good Friday holiday. ASIA Most Asian financial markets rose in thin holiday trading Friday after a turbulent week. Japanese shares were buoyed by gains in property developers and financial issues. The Nikkei 225 index climbed 222.13 points, or 1.81%, to close at 12,482.57. South Korean shares extended their winning streak into a fourth session amid easing concerns about global inflation after commodities prices declined. The Korea Composite Stock Price Index, or Kospi, added 22.30 points, or 1.4%, to 1,645.69. Trade was subdued because many markets in Asia, Europe and the Americas were closed for Good Friday. Regional markets that were off included Hong Kong, Australia, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Singapore. Chinese stocks were mixed, with the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index edging lower as market heavyweight PetroChina fell 4%, outweighing gains in steel makers. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index fell 0.2%, or 7.47 points, to 3,796.58. The smaller Shenzhen Composite Index rose 1.4% to 1,173.14. Markets in Australia, Hong Kong and New Zealand will remain closed Monday. CURRENCY The euro rose against the dollar on Friday in Asian trading, with markets across Europe closed for Good Friday, the traditional start of the Easter holidays. The 15-nation currency bought $1.5470, above the $1.5444 it bought in late New York trading Thursday, after the US Conference Board said that its index of leading economic indicators fell 0.3% last month to 135.0 - less than the revised 0.4% drop in January. The result was still well below the euro's all-time high of $1.5904 it set on Monday. The dollar dropped to 99.60 Japanese yen from 100.00 yen the night before, still above its 12-year low of 95.77 set Tuesday. The pound edged higher to $1.9844 from the $1.9826 it bought in New York late Thursday. The dollar has consistently hit record lows against major currencies in recent weeks. The Fed cut its federal funds rate to 2.25% this week, its sixth interest rate cut since September. The European Central Bank has left its own key rate at 4% despite inflation in the euro zone at record highs. COMMODITIES Markets were closed.