Stocks lifted Wednesday as traders viewed a surprise jump in the New York Fed regional manufacturing survey as a sign the economy is strengthening in the face of last Friday's weak jobs report. The Philadelphia Fed survey, due Thursday at 10 a.m., could be key.
Also positive Wednesday was Bank of America's stronger earnings and Apple's deal to sell phones in China.
"Monday's move scared a lot of people," Boyle said. "I think it's wait-and-see for the next four or five days. I think that's going to set up the quarter."
in one of his final weeks on the job, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke appears at the Brookings Institution Thursday at 11:10 a.m. ET, discussing challenges facing central banks following the Great Recession and taking questions from the audience. San Francisco Fed President John Williams speaks earlier, at 9:15 a.m., on monetary policy when rates are at zero.
Several major financial companies report Thursday: BlackRock, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup ahead of the open, and American Express and Capital One, after the close.
Earnings are also expected from Charles Schwab, PNC Financial, BB&T and Huntington Bancshares, as well as UnitedHealth, in the morning. Intel reports after the close. Best Buy reports on its holiday sales before the bell.
CPI consumer inflation data and jobless claims are at 8:30 a.m., and Treasury international capital flow data at 9 a.m. The National Association of Home Builders survey is reported at 10 a.m.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will be at the Council on Foreign Relations, speaking at 8:30 a.m. on the economy, the next steps for financial reform and his department's international agenda.
But traders are looking ahead at earnings as a key for the stock market, and that is what could steer a market that would do nothing but rise at the end of last year.
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"It's going to be really difficult to get a read this earnings season, especially since the financial sector is masking a lot of trends," said Gina Martin Adams, institutional equities strategist with Wells Fargo Securities. Earnings for the sector are expected to rise 21 percent, and she noted that insurers should make easy comparisons because of the impact of Hurricane Sandy on last year's quarter.
"It's our expectation that earnings will recover this year," she said. "I'd like to see the corporate- spending sensitive areas—tech and industrials—pick up the ball from what's been a consumer- centric recovery so far.
"I'd like to hear that in the commentary that it's about to get started. So far, it's yet to be seen," Adams said.
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Earnings for the S&P 500 are expected to grow about 7 percent in the fourth quarter.
"The trouble is balancing what could be a relatively dicey fourth quarter with, hopefully, some commentary that supports a better future," Adams said. "I think companies will be challenged to confirm analysts' perceptions."
Northern Trust, meanwhile, released its quarterly survey of about 100 investment managers, which showed them increasingly optimistic on the economy. The managers are also more optimistic about earnings—with 64 percent expecting to see higher earnings over the next three months, compared with just 49 percent in the third-quarter survey. The December survey also found that a majority (64 percent) expect market volatility, as measured by the VIX, to increase over the next year, and 69 percent expect interest rates to rise while the Fed begins to taper its QE program.