In a market more preoccupied with government policy than traditional indicators, employment is the one metric that still draws investor attention.
That's why Friday's jobs number, whether it surprises to the upside or downside, could either intensify the current market slump or perhaps indicate better things to come.
"That number's been one the market has been focusing on each time," says Richard Sparks, senior analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati. "The worries over the economy and how bad it's going to get are a real big concern. The jobs number is one that people are going to be looking at to see if things are as bad as we think they are."
In the best-case scenario, a surprise to the downside could still work out well for the market.
Investors have been searching for that vital capitulation point where complete despair sets in and stocks form a true bottom. A higher-than-expected jobless rate could set the stage for that and spark a long-overdue rally in what most agree is a highly oversold market.
"Maybe that could finally raise some alarm bells and we get a big down, 300 to 400 points at the open," says Chip Hanlon, president of Delta Global Advisors in Huntington Beach, Calif. "It sounds gruesome, but I think that might finally be the type of capitulation that they've overreacted to bad news. That might finally wash out the last few sellers and signal that at least investors are paying attention."
Many analysts, indeed, cite investor apathy as a major problem for the market.
Stocks once again slumped Thursday, but on low volume typical of many of the recent selloffs. The CBOE Volatility Index remains mired in a tight range, causing investors looking for a capitulation point to worry that there's not enough panic in the markets yet.
"If people panic and throw the baby out with the bath water in a big 300- to 500-point whoosh to the downside, at least they're engaged," Hanlon says. "Right now I'm not even sensing that. I'm getting the sense that people are just quitting on the market."
To some, the mood is reminiscent of the last bear market.
"We may be getting into that apathy stage where we just kind of grind sideways, kind of the way the 2003 market ended," Sparks say. "We went lower and lower and just kind of ground down. Finally at some point after a pretty lengthy period of time we were able to move higher."
Sign of a Bottom?
As for Friday's jobs number, economists think it's unlikely to show a bottoming in sight at least for the economy.
Analysts surveyed by Briefing.com are expecting 615,000 nonfarm jobs to be lost and an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent.
"If the numbers come in again in the 600,000 range or the 500,000 range or even more it's an indication that we're not even close to being out of the woods," says University of New Hampshire economist Michael Goldberg. "So it's going to have a very chilling effect on the markets."
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To be sure, the market has reacted little lately to economic reports.
Investors seem more fixated lately on policy pronouncements, with the latest slide coming amid market dissatisfaction over a perceived lack of direction from Washington.
Some wonder whether another dose of bad jobs news will move Wall Street.
"Right now we're in a deep downturn," says David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities in New York. "If we lost a million workers in February I'm not sure that it would matter materially or change expectations of where the economy's going to head in the next six months."
But Resler also is in the camp that a sharp spike lower could move the market closer to capitulation.
"That accelerates the process of moving toward the point of correction," he says. "If we get down to subsistence levels of living the next move is going to be up. When people start saying it can't get any worse, that's good news."
At this point, the prevailing sentiment is that things in fact can get worse.
As if there wasn't enough to worry about in the employment picture, the perils of General Motors have added more concern. Should the automaker fail--auditors are questioning the company's ability to survive--that could create a swath of job losses not just at GM but in all the ancillary businesses that count on the company for survival.
"If the unemployment number is substantially better than expected that would normally cause the market to rise," says Michael Kresh, president of M.D. Kresh Financial Services in Islandia, N.Y. "But in lieu of General Motors possibly declaring bankruptcy, whatever that unemployment number is it's going to be totally off the wall if General Motors is shutting down."
Kresh takes a longer view in investing, and he says a combination of factors have him believing that now is a good time to be buying stocks, regardless of daily gyrations.
In fact, he's putting money into the undervalued companies, a group in which he places CNBC.com-parent General Electric as well as Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.
"I try to ignore the overall information that causes the market to move on a day-to-day basis," he says. "But you cannot ignore the unemployment data because we have to see that get better before we have any clues that we're going to get through this recession."
Finding hope in that number could be a difficult endeavor anytime soon.
"If the numbers come in and it looks really good, there could be some feeling that maybe we're close to a bottom," Goldberg says. "My forecast is much more bearish, but I don't have a crystal ball."