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Will Earnings be the Catalyst to Get Stocks Moving?

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Traders will be watching Thursday's earnings closely for signs of any trend that could break stocks out of their doldrums.

By early Wednesday, just 37 of the S&P 500 companies reported and more than half beat analysts' estimates, with no clear trend emerging. Meanwhile, stocks are virtually flat for the week so far, and traders see the market as stalled and waiting for a catalyst.

The Dow fell 23 points Wednesday to 13,411, while the S&P 500 was up 0.29, less than a point, at 1472, and the Nasdaq rose 6 points to 3117. Some of the companies reporting Thursday morning include Citigroup, Bank of America, Blackrock and United Health.

"We're not getting much movement," said Barry Knapp, head of equity portfolio strategy at Barclays. "I guess you could argue, it's slowly grinding higher, but the other part of the story here is earning season in the first part of January is much more spread out than it is in the rest of the year...You pretty much know what the earnings are going to look like in a brief sporadic period but the fourth quarter is spread out over a longer time horizon."

(Read More: Will Earnings Season Give the Bulls What They Want? )

Knapp said the companies he is watching for forward comments from the techs, like Intel, which reports after the bell Thursday; IBM, which reports next week, and industrial companies.

There is a fair amount of disagreement among analysts on what this earnings period will foretell, as some believe corporate earnings have troughed, while others say they have yet to.

"The thing I'm concerned about is that the market thinks the earnings are going to bottom in the fourth quarter, and we think it's the first quarter. The market thinks it's a V bottom, and we think it's a U," Knapp said.

The market has also traded sideways as Wall Street watches Washington, waiting for it to do battle on the debt ceiling limit and budget cuts in the next several weeks.

Bond yields were lower Wednesday, well off the highs reached early in the new year. The 10-year was yielding 1.81 percent in late trading, after creeping close to 2 percent earlier in the month.

"It seems like we go through these fits of rising rate scares, followed by fits of risk anxieties," said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies. "Like the economy, the market has not been able to signal a clear inflection. That pretty much sums it up."

(Read More: Forget Earnings, What Street Is Really Talking About Is...Pay)

"There does seem to be a little bit of a change in attitude from the buy side," he said. "The sharp rise in rates after the fiscal cliff deal really made people nervous. The mood has gone from an insatiable hunt for yield, to maybe positioning a little more defensively."

There are a few economic reports to watch Thursday, including weekly jobless claims, housing starts and building permits at 8:30 a.m. ET, and the Philadelphia Fed survey at 10 a.m.

On Wednesday, the Fed's beige book on the economy showed some improvement but the picture on capital spending was mixed.

Knapp expects to see capital spending improve later in the year, after slumping sharply in the fourth quarter as companies held back around the fiscal cliff drama in Washington. A reversal of that trend should drive industrial and tech higher.

"When you look at what was the big trade of 2012, it was housing," which helped home builders and financials rally last year, he said.

Knapp said if public policy uncertainty fades and capital spending starts to pick up, that should drive stocks that are capital spending sensitive. "In this cycle, I think it's going to be the industrial sector that is going to be the big winner," he said.

Other companies reporting Thursday include PNC Bank, Amphenol, Fifth Third, Huntington Bancshares and BB&Tbefore the bell. Besides Intel, American Express, Capital One and People's United Financial report after the closing bell.

  • Patti Domm

    Patti Domm is CNBC Executive Editor, News, responsible for news coverage of the markets and economy.

  • A CNBC reporter since 1990, Bob Pisani covers Wall Street from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

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