Wall Street's week ahead examined

Expectations are not strong
NEW YORK 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 last 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 U.S. banking system operating. It has 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 like 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 percent, the Standard & Poor's 500 index increased 3.21 percent, and the Nasdaq composite index added 2.06 percent.

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 with 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 spending in February rose by 0.1 percent, incomes rose by 0.3 percent, and that the core personal consumption expenditures deflator - a key gauge of inflation - edged up 0.1 percent.

Other economic reports on tap this 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."


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