Trading on Wall Street is always driven by the news of the day, but over the past few weeks, investors' obsession with economic data has been particularly acute as the next Federal Reserve meeting — and possible interest rate hike — draws closer.
In addition to the major reports that can move markets, such as Friday's monthly jobs report from the Labor Department or last week's gross domestic product — traders have been picking over economic minutiae for any sign of inflation or economic strength that may give clues to the Fed's thinking.
Thus, stocks are moving not only on the big reports, but on such things as Tuesday's consumer spending and income report from the Commerce Department and even Wednesday's private-sector jobs report from Automatic Data Processing, even though last month's ADP report was well off the mark in predicting the Labor jobs report.
Blame Ben Bernanke for the market's new obsession with data, both obscure and well-known. The new Fed chairman has been very forthcoming about what he's looking for in the economy, and in some cases pointing to specific reports that he and his colleagues watch when setting interest rate policy.
That's a stark contrast from his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, whose dry, seemingly obfuscatory statements led to the coining of the term "Fedspeak" — yet generally made investors feel better.
"Under Greenspan, he told us a story and said everything was going to be all right, and that helped the investor go in and stay in for the long term," said Chris Johnson, manager of quantitative analysis at Schaeffer's Investment Research. "Bernanke is different. Instead of telling us what time it is, he's trying to tell us how the clock works, which has us on edge with each datapoint that comes in."
That has led to increased volatility in the markets, Johnson said, making it difficult for long-term investors to feel comfortable holdings stocks — especially when simple savings vehicles such as money market funds and certificates of deposit are paying 5 percent or more with little or no risk.
Wall Street's data obsession may lessen once the Fed's intentions become clearer. There's no real consensus on whether the Fed will raise the nation's benchmark rate to 5.5 percent on Tuesday, though investors are leaning in the direction of a rate hike.
After that, however, the Fed has reiterated time and again it will raise rates as needed. And nobody can really say with certainty whether the future economic data will signal that need.