After strong February, big jobs report in focus

The monthly nonfarm payrolls report takes the spotlight next week as investors continue to look for guidance on the timing of an interest rate hike.

"Next week's big number will be at the end of the week with February employment," said Mike Mussio, managing director at FBB Capital Partners. We want "confirmation that (the) trend is improvement."

The key figure will be wage growth, which posted gains of 0.5 percent in January after a decline in December.

A "now hiring" sign at a fast food restaurant in New York.
Getty Images
A "now hiring" sign at a fast food restaurant in New York.

"Last month's report was a one-off because you had increase in minimum wage in some parts of the country," said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Boston Private Wealth.

Sustained wage growth would indicate a better economy and give the Federal Reserve more confidence to raise short-term interest rates. Wal-Mart's recently announced pay raises and resulting pressure on other major minimum wage employers are signs that hourly pay is increasing.

"The labor market slowly but surely getting tighter," said Tim Hopper, chief economist at financial services firm TIAA-CREF. "As long as hiring continues, we should begin to see wages tick up."

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Hopper is also looking at monthly auto sales on Tuesday. Trucks and SUVs led better-than-expected auto sales in January.

"Vehicle sales on Tuesday often drives market behavior," he said. "There's a direct input from vehicle sales into GDP statistics, (and it's) often used to figure into consumer spending."

Besides those two data points and some ISM figures, investors will have few scheduled reports to look at next week.

"We're entering the part of the calendar where we're entering a sort of a void," said Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist for U.S. Bank Wealth Management.

Earnings season is essentially over until companies begin reporting first-quarter results in mid-April. And after Fed Chair Janet Yellen's testimony this past week, no major news out of the Fed is expected until its meeting on March 17 and 18, two weeks away.

The European Central Bank Governing Council discusses monetary policy next Thursday as it plans to roll out a 60 billion euro ($70 billion)-a-month bond-buying program.

Seasonally, analysts are mostly encouraged by the recent housing data. On Friday, pending home sales reported the greatest number of signed home buyer contracts in 18 months.

"We're getting into prime homebuying season," Mussio said. "(Pending home sales) numbers today are a little better than expectations. If we start getting decent numbers going into the spring, that could be a near-term catalyst going forward."

New home sales beat expectations at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 481,000 units for January, the best since the middle of 2008. For context, the figure is still below the 30-year average of 710,000. The S&P/Case-Shiller composite index of home prices in 20 cities increased by a greater-than-expected 4.5 percent in December from the same period last year.

The only housing-related data expected next week is weekly mortgage applications.

"I think (housing) is one of the more important parts of the resurgence," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities. As Home Depot and Lowe's posted solid earnings, he said, "I think people are trading up and moving out. (There's) new household formation."

Stocks performed much better during the second month of the year than in January. Both the S&P 500 and Dow Jones industrial average set records for the first time in 2015 in February and the major indices are up about 2 percent or more for the year.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down at 18,132.38 on Friday but posted a 5.64 percent gain for the month, its best since January 2013.

The S&P 500 closed down at 2,104.4, with information technology the greatest decliner and consumer staples and telecommunications the only two advancing sectors. The S&P was up 5.49 for the month, the best since October 2011.

The Nasdaq closed down 24.3 points, or 0.49 percent, at 4,963.53. The index gained 7.08 percent for the month, its best since January 2012.

Oil continued to show signs of bottoming, with WTI crude futures settling up 3.3 percent, to 49.76 a barrel on Friday for the first monthly gain since June.

After February's strong run in equities and major indices hitting records, analysts expect a slight pullback in March as investors weigh stock valuations.

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"The S&P and Dow rose to new record highs, with the S&P now poised to reach our short-term target of 2,125-50 level," Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital, said in a note.

"However, while we expect our short-term targets to be achieved," he said, "the strength in February may give way to March weakness."

On tap next week:

Monday

Mobile World Congress

Earnings: Endo International, Nabors Industries, Sotheby's, Mylan Labs, Palo Alto Networks, Salix Pharmaceuticals, Caesars Entertainment

8:30 a.m.: Personal Income & Outlays

9:45 a.m.: PMI Manufacturing Index

10 a.m.: ISM Manufacturing Index

10 a.m.: Construction spending

Tuesday

Auto Sales

Earnings: Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, AutoZone, Best Buy, Dick's Sporting Goods, Smith & Wesson, TiVo

Wednesday

Earnings: Brown-Forman, Abercrombie & Fitch, H&R Block, PetSmart

7 a.m.: Mortgage Applications

8:15 a.m.: ADP Employment Report

9:45 a.m.: PMI Services Index

10 a.m.: ISM Non-manufacturing Index

10:30 a.m.: Oil inventories

2 p.m.: Beige Book

Thursday

Chain store sales

ECB Governing Council Press Conference

Earnings: Costco, Canadian Natural Resources, Kroger, JoyGlobal, Cooper Cos., Diamond Foods, Finisar, Quiksilver

7:30 a.m.: Challenger Job-Cut Report

8:30 a.m.: Jobless claims

8:30 a.m.: Productivity & Costs

10 a.m.: Factory orders

10:30 a.m.: Natural gas inventories

4:30 p.m.: Fed balance sheet/Money supply

Friday

Weekly rig count

Earnings: Foot Locker, Staples

8:30 a.m.: Nonfarm payrolls

8:30 a.m.: International trade

3 p.m.: Consumer credit