U.S. stocks will likely hit major speed bumps this week as the bears step up pressure following fraud charges against Goldman Sachs and earnings will need to clear a high bar to give Wall Street a reprieve.
The market got a jolt on Friday as U.S. securities regulators charged Goldman Sachs Group Inc. with fraud in the structuring and marketing of a debt product tied to subprime mortgages.
Investors wondered whether the lawsuit from the Securities and Exchange Commission could be a harbinger of similar moves against other banks.
It could also turn up the heat on financial regulation reform as Democrats push to get legislation to the Senate floor.
"It certainly looks like this could be the beginning of a period where you have a regulatory cloud over Goldman Sachs and perhaps even the entire investment banking industry," said Hank Smith, chief investment officer of Haverford Trust Co, in Philadelphia.
Investors are fearful that stricter regulation will take a bite out of bank profits without adequately protecting against another financial crisis in the future.
Meanwhile, the market faces a harried week for quarterly earnings, with 11 Dow components and 123 S&P 500 companies releasing results.
But even strong results may not be enough to push stocks higher. After the S&P 500's rally of 76 percent from last March's 12-year lows, analysts say stocks could already be "priced to perfection" and companies will need to show blockbuster numbers in order to be rewarded.
Case in point: Google. The company posted a 23 percent jump in revenue last week after Thursday's closing bell, but it fell short of Wall Street's most bullish expectations, and the stock tumbled 7.6 percent on Friday.
Strong earnings and forecasts from Intel Corp. last week had created more optimism for a strong earnings season. As a result, the market could see knee-jerk reactions this week to the results from each major company.
The data calendar is relatively light this week with March reports on the U.S. Producer Price Index, home sales, durable goods orders and leading economic indicators on tap.
That could keep attention on the financial sector with a Senate vote on financial reform likely in the coming weeks. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid told reporters on Thursday he hopes to get the final bill on the floor this week.
A draft bill to regulate the $450 trillion over-the-counter derivatives market was unveiled on Friday, taking a tougher tack against big banks.
The charges against Goldman could provide more ammunition in favor of reform, said Dan Ripp, president of Bradley Woods & Co Ltd, in New York.
"It's an argument for more oversight, more precautions," Ripp said. "Those things are just not good for Wall Street."
Congress is pushing to rein in some of the risky practices that helped trigger the financial meltdown that led to the recession. However, some have argued more regulation is not necessarily the answer.
"The problems we have with the financial services sector are not because it's not regulated enough. The problem is that the people who were in charge of enforcing the rules and regulations that were already on the books were asleep at the wheel," Ripp said.
If there is a sense of deja vu to the market, it's because we have seen this before with the market rallying ahead of earnings season — only to sell off as reports roll out.
The Standard & Poor's 500 Index has gained 7.9 percent since the beginning of March, but it ended the week nearly flat, due to Friday's 1.6 percent drop.
For the past week, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 0.2 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index climbed 1.1 percent; the S&P 500 dipped 0.2 percent.
"Expectations are sky high and this is the third earnings cycle where the market rallied with huge expectations, only to have a pullback started in the second week of earnings," said Burt White, managing director and chief investment officer at LPL Financial, in Boston.
Heavy hitters on the earnings agenda include tech giants International Business Machines and Microsoft, while on the financial front, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and The Travelers Cos Inc., also will issue their quarterly scorecards.
But after such a strong market rally, investors could be left searching for cheap places to put their money.
"I'm happy I have these stocks, but those were decisions made a long time ago. But what do we buy now?" said Bernie McGinn, president of McGinn Investment Management, in Alexandria, Va.
The index of leading economic indicators for March will kick off the week on Monday. Investors expect a gain of 1 percent, far exceeding the gain of just 0.1 percent the month before, according to economists polled by Reuters.
The overall PPI, a gauge of inflation at the wholesale or producer prices level, is anticipated to rise 0.4 percent in March, compared with a drop of 0.6 percent the month before. Core PPI, excluding volatile food and energy prices, is forecast to gain just 0.1 percent in March, matching February's increase of 0.1 percent. The data is due on Wednesday.
Thursday's weekly initial jobless claims are expected to slip to 460,000 from 484,000 the week before.
Existing home sales for March, also due on Thursday, are expected to rise to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.28 million units from a pace of 5.02 million in February.
New home sales for March, set for release on Friday, are expected to rise to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 330,000 units, the Reuters poll showed, compared with a pace of 308,000 in February.
Durable goods orders, also due on Friday, are expected to rise 0.3 percent in March, compared with February's gain of 0.9 percent.
Durable goods are manufactured goods such as washing machines, intended to last three years or more.
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