updated 3/4/2007 3:22:53 PM ET 2007-03-04T20:22:53

If last week was Wall Street’s big dive, this week will be where it tries to figure out how deep the water is.

Major Market Indices

Stocks are in for a shaky ride, now that the past five sessions have erased all of this year’s gains and then some. Investors in the coming days will be grasping at any and all signals, both domestic and foreign, to see if the market can find a foothold.

Most market watchers now agree that last week’s plunge doesn’t signal disaster. The stock market, which pushed the Dow to 31 record highs since early October, had been climbing at a pace that was arguably more extraordinary than the depth of Tuesday’s drop. Chatter about a big correction had been circulating the floors of stock exchanges for months — it just came as a shock that so much of the correction happened in a single day.

What the sages are split over is whether stocks have hit a short-term dip or entered a bear market, so they’ll be closely watching this week’s economic data. Many say there’s no reason that stocks shouldn’t resume their trek into record territory in the coming months, given that little has changed fundamentally in terms of the average consumer, corporate earnings, manufacturing activity or inflation. But others argue that stocks had inflated way too much given the torpidity of many areas of the economy, and that there is still more air to be let out.

The Dow Jones industrials are down 3.3 percent on the year, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index is 4.4 percent lower, and the Nasdaq composite index is down 5.9 percent.

If the Labor Department’s employment data on Friday shows stability in U.S. jobs — previously a big market driver, as it suggests consumers will keep spending money — the stock market has a better chance of regaining its footing. At the end of last week, the market was expecting February nonfarm payrolls growth to slip to 100,000 from 111,000 in January; February’s unemployment rate to hold steady at 4.6 percent; and hourly earnings to inch up 0.3 percent, more than January’s 0.2 percent. Other reports, including a snapshot of the nation’s service economy and the U.S. trade balance, will also be closely watched.

No matter where the data falls, however, Wall Street is anticipating choppiness this week as some investors flee from stocks to the traditionally safer Treasury market, while others swoop in to scoop up bargains.

And because last week’s plunge was triggered in large part by a sharp decline in Chinese stocks, which also set off drops in other Asian markets and European markets, U.S. investors will undoubtedly be looking abroad to see if other countries’ stocks are recovering or collapsing.

Other economic data in the forefront
The Institute for Supply Management on Monday will report its index on the services economy in February. The market is expecting a reading of 57.5, down slightly from 59.0 in January.

Also Monday, St. Louis Fed President William Poole will speak on inflation and economic growth in Santiago, Chile.

On Tuesday, the market expects the Labor Department to revise its fourth-quarter productivity growth measure to an annual rate of 1.7 percent from a previous 3.0 percent, and the Commerce Department to report a 4 percent slowdown in January factory orders. Factory orders include the previously reported durable goods — one of the many disappointing factors contributing to last Tuesday’s freefall — plus non-durable goods orders.

Meanwhile Tuesday, the National Association of Realtors reports January’s pending home sales.

On Wednesday, investors will read the Fed’s beige book, which describes economic conditions in regions around the country. The Federal Reserve’s monthly measure of consumer credit comes Wednesday as well, and is expected to be $7 billion for January, up from December’s $6 billion.

On Thursday, the nation’s retailers report their sales for February.

And Friday will be a data-heavy day, bringing the jobs report and the trade balance for January. The market is forecasting the trade gap will come in narrower at $60.0 billion from $61.2 billion in December. Also, January wholesale inventories are expected to show a 0.1 percent decline, less than December’s decrease of 0.5 percent.

And in the background, a trickle of earnings
Earnings season is mostly over, and corporate growth in the last quarter of 2006 came in at around 10 percent — slower than in previous months, but still healthy. Investors haven’t been too occupied lately with individual company news, but they shouldn’t discount the possibility of a big earnings surprise rattling the markets.

BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. release their earnings Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. The market is expecting BJ’s to report profit of 66 cents per share. BJ’s closed at $31.93 Friday, at the upper end of its 52-week range of $25.18 to $34.04.

Costco is also expected to report profit of 66 cents per share. Costco closed at $55.75 Friday, at the upper end of its 52-week range of $46.00 to $58.70.

Meanwhile, analysts predict homebuilder Hovnanian Enterprises Inc. on Thursday to report a loss of 59 cents per share. Hovananian closed at $30.75 Friday, in the middle of its 52-week range of $24.79 to $47.80.

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