Stocks likely to drift as investors await Fed, earnings

By Reuters

Mar 28, 2015 05:29 AM EDT

Wall Street investors may find little reason to make big moves next week as they await monthly U.S. jobs data and any news that could change expectations for the first interest rate hike in almost a decade.

The Labor Department report is due on Friday, when the stock market will be closed for Good Friday, leaving investors unable to trade on the data until the following week.

In the meantime, investors will continue adjusting to lowered earnings forecasts for the first quarter and the uncertain direction of the dollar.

Stocks have trended downward since rallying on the Federal Reserve's March 18 statement, in which it suggested a less-aggressive approach to raising interest rates than investors had expected.

"We're in this sort of information void right now," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia, which manages about $67 billion in assets. "We don't yet have the earnings season and there's almost nothing so significant as to rattle the equities market right now, so we're sort of in a pause."

Uncertainty surrounding the timing of the Fed's rate move has been one of the key factors for the market, creating more volatility and putting greater emphasis on economic data that could sway the Fed's outlook.

Adding to concerns about the Fed has been a dramatic rise in the U.S. dollar, which has weighed on U.S. stocks because of increased worries about earnings for U.S. multinational companies. The earnings season officially kicks off April 8, when Alcoa (AA.N) reports.

Up-and-down moves have left the S&P 500 .SPX virtually flat compared with the end of 2014.

"It's like the market is trying figure out what that next driver will be to hang its hat on," said Joe Bell, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati.

A recent Reuters poll shows the majority of Wall Street's top banks see the Fed holding off until at least September before raising rates. But the jobs report could shift those views again, especially since February marked the 12th straight month that employment gains have been above 200,000, the longest such run since 1994.

While Wall Street's fear gauge, the CBOE Volatility Index .VIX, is above levels seen for most of the last two years, it remains well below its October high.

That indicates institutional investors are not overly concerned about a big downward move at the moment, according to Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab in Austin, Texas.

History suggests a tighter Fed policy may not result in a pickup in volatility, according to Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. market strategist for RBC Capital Markets in New York. The VIX drifted lower as the last rate hike cycle in 2006 began, he noted.

"It's because when the Fed is tightening, it's usually a sign - especially when they start - that things are getting pretty good," Golub said.

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