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Investors enter week with cause for optimism

Optimism about an improving labor market and corporate profits could propel U.S. stocks higher this week as earnings season approaches.
/ Source: Reuters

Optimism about an improving labor market and corporate profits could propel U.S. stocks higher this week as earnings season approaches.

Analysts expect trading at the week's outset to be dictated by Friday's non-farm payrolls report, which showed the economy added 162,000 jobs in March, the fastest pace of growth in three years. U.S. markets were closed for the Good Friday holiday.

"Things have been getting better. There's no question about it. We've had a remarkable V-shaped recovery since last March," said Alan Valdes, director of floor operations for Kabrik Trading in New York.

The market could have momentum on its side as investors turn their attention to what is expected to be a strong earnings season.

The broad Standard & Poor's 500 achieved its fourth consecutive quarterly gain last week and scored its best monthly rise since last July. For the first quarter, the S&P 500 climbed 4.9 percent. For March alone, it gained 5.9 percent. On Thursday, the S&P ended at 1,178.10 — an 18-month high. For the short holiday week, it was up 1 percent.

The Dow meanwhile, has its sights set on the psychologically important 11,000 level, which could be surpassed on Monday if there is enough enthusiasm over the jobs report.

The payrolls data will lend support to markets, as U.S. stock futures rallied in the wake of the release. Private hiring was stronger than expected, bolstering the view the economy is starting to find its footing and, as a result, needs less government support.

However, with the S&P 500 stock index up 74 percent from the March 2009 closing low, some worry the rally will be interrupted if the economy does not maintain its strength.

"The road to a self-sustaining economic recovery, which is the thesis of the bullish cabal, is going to be tested," said Doug Kass, president of Seabreeze Partners Management, in Palm Beach, Florida.

When trading resumes Monday, Wall Street will also watch Apple Inc's stock for reaction to its Saturday launch of the much hyped iPad tablet computer, which looks like an oversized iPhone. Apple has staked much of its reputation on the iPad. It's been marketed as a revolutionary new category of device — a lightweight computer that aims to combine the best of a smartphone and a laptop. On Thursday, Apple's stock closed on the Nasdaq at a record $235.97 — up 12 percent for the year.

Along with the payrolls report, investors will take in minutes from the Fed's rate-setting meeting in March, and a round of data that includes February pending home sales and an ISM survey on the U.S. services sector for March.

Analysts expect first-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies to rise 36.3 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data. That's slightly less than the 37.2 percent growth that was expected in January and well off the 51.2 percent that was expected in October.

While expectations have come down somewhat, analysts' estimates could be closer to the mark than in recent quarters, said Scott Wren, senior equity strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis.

"Coming into 2009, estimates were off by $20 or $30. I think people have a better, more realistic feel for what earnings are going to be now," Wren said.

Investors will be eager for corporate guidance heading into the earnings season, which kicks off with Alcoa Incon April 12 -- a week from Monday.

So far, 70 S&P 500 companies have given negative pre-announcements, compared with 55 companies that have made positive ones.

Honeywellwas an exception to the negative bias last week when the diversified manufacturer raised its profit outlook, citing stronger orders and sales in several markets.

While some of the earnings enthusiasm could already be priced in, preventing a swift, large rally, good results should give the market enough support to move higher, said Matt Kaufler, portfolio manager and equity analyst at Clover Capital Management in Rochester, New York.

"In terms of providing another check that this recovery is gathering its sea legs, I think the earnings season is going to provide that confirmation point," Kaufler said.

Minutes from the Federal Reserve's most recent rate-setting committee meeting will be released Tuesday.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will speak to the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

Investors will watch for any additional details on the Fed's plans to unwind its stimulus measures.

In a relatively light week for data, one of the more influential reports will come on Monday with the Institute for Supply Management's non-manufacturing index for March. This ISM index, which assesses activity in the huge U.S. services sector, is forecast to rise to 54.0 in March from 53.0 in February, according to economists polled by Reuters.

February pending home sales, also due on Monday, are expected to dip 0.1 percent, improving from January's sharp drop of 7.6 percent.

Friday's wholesale inventories report for February is expected to show a gain of 0.4 percent from a revised loss of 0.1 percent in January.