Wall Street Looks to Critical March Jobs Report
Business + Economy

Wall Street Looks to Critical March Jobs Report

Brendan McDermid

A truckload of data will hit markets in the coming week, but it's the jobs report Friday when Wall Street is closed that will be the most important and possibly have the most lasting impact.

The first quarter ends Tuesday so portfolio adjustments could have an effect on stocks and bonds, as investors wrap up the old quarter and invest for the new one. The S&P 500 is up just 0.1 percent for the quarter so far, and if it loses ground, it would be the first negative quarter in nine.

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The stock and bond markets are closed for Good Friday, but futures are trading in the morning session so thin volume around the Easter holiday weekend could also be a factor for markets.

Beyond the March employment report, the economic data in the coming week are important and potentially market moving. The personal consumption expenditures data that the Fed watches for its preferred inflation reading are released Monday, and monthly vehicle sales, ADP's payroll data and the ISM manufacturing survey are expected Wednesday. 

But it's the jobs report that clearly matters most. "It will be important. We're really at the cusp of trying to figure out if the Fed is going to delay or proceed, and the jobs number in many ways could be the tipping point for their decision-making apparatus," said Boris Schlossberg, managing director, foreign exchange strategy at BK Asset Management.

After the Fed's March meeting, markets interpreted its revised economic and interest rate forecasts to mean a September rate hike is now more likely than June, as some traders had expected. Every piece of data is being weighed for its influence on the central bank, and jobs reports have been among the most important.

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Dollar strategists said if the jobs number is stronger than expected, it could put June back in play for the first rate hike and that would drive the dollar higher. A weaker number could confirm the market's expectations for a slower return to higher rates. 

Economists expect to see 242,000 nonfarm payrolls, and an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent, according to Thomson Reuters. 

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said one jobs number should not sway the Fed, since it also considers inflation and other data. "Most of the data aside from jobs has been coming in below expectations," he said.

"Anything around 250,000 nonfarm payrolls is reasonable, given the slowing in GDP growth over the last two quarters, and you would expect job growth to moderate. ... GDP growth would suggest we would throttle back to about 250,000," he said. Nonfarm payrolls have averaged more than 280,000 in the past three months.

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Thursday's trade data will also be important as it should show the impact of the stronger dollar on exports, and that could affect GDP. First-quarter GDP estimates have been falling, and some economists are expecting growth close to 1.5 percent.

Revisions to growth forecasts this past week sent negative ripples through the stock market, already worried about the weak outlook for first-quarter earnings. More revisions to first-quarter GDP could follow but economist mostly expect to see a spring back by the second quarter.

"Last month the trade deficit was $42 billion ... I would expect that to deteriorate to $44 billion in February," Zandi said. "We'll continue to see this deterioration. This is the most serious drag on growth now, and that'll be the case through the year."

There is also a lull in earnings news in the coming week, so traders are watching for any warnings from companies ahead of the actual reports later in April and May. First-quarter earnings season has made the market especially edgy since analysts expect the first decline in profits in six years for the S&P 500 companies. Thomson Reuters said analysts project a 3.1 percent drop in net income.

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The S&P 500 was down 2.2 percent in the past week to 2,061 in volatile trading, and the Dow fell 2.3 percent in the week to 17,712. The S&P is down 2.1 percent for March, and the Dow is down 2.3 percent. the Russell 2000 is the only index to see gains in the month, up 0.6 percent. 

"I think there's an expectation that the first-quarter numbers are going to be really soft. I think there's a reasonable possibility that of course the earnings will be down from the fourth quarter, but I think the earnings could be flat year over year," said Stuart Freeman, co-head of global equity strategy, Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

Freeman said while the strong dollar and lower oil prices should shave profit growth from multinationals and energy firm, he does not think enough positive impact has been factored in for companies that benefit from lower oil.

"I don't think we're on the edge of any significant (market) pullbacks myself. I think this earnings season is going to be OK, and I think investors are obviously going to be listening to what managements have to say," he said. Freeman said he expects the economy to shake off negative factors like winter weather and the West Coast port strike, and rebound in the second quarter.

What to Watch:

Earnings: Cal-Maine FoodsUTi Worldwide
8:30 am: Personal income/spending
10:00 am: Pending home sales

End of quarter
Earnings: MovadoSynnex
8:00 am: Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker on economy
9:00 am: S&P/Case-Shiller home prices
9:45 am: Chicago purchasing managers
10:00 am: Consumer confidence
3:00 pm: Kansas City Fed President Esther George on economy

Vehicle sales
Earnings: MonsantoAcuity Brands
8:15 am: ADP employment
9:45 am: Manufacturing PMI
10:00 am: ISM manufacturing
10:00 am: Construction spending

Earnings: CarMaxMicron
8:30 am: Initial claims
8:30 am: International trade
10:00 am: Factory orders

Good Friday holiday
Stock and bond markets closed
Futures markets open holiday schedule
8:30 am: Employment
8:30 am: Minneapolis Fed President Narayana welcoming remarks, community development conference

This article originally appeared in CNBC.

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