Market Insider

Retail sales—Another chance to blame the weather

Ice covers a statue of wolves outside Carter-Finley Stadium on February 12, 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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Winter weather probably took a bite out of January's retail sales, while jobless claims data may also be affected.

Both reports are due at 8:30 a.m. ET Thursday. Retail sales is one of the important data points economists are watching to see if weather is impacting the economy, or if it's slowing down for other reasons.

(Read more: Strong USretail data bolstered by hot Web sales)

But the report is likely to be inconclusive. Economists expect to see a 0.1 percent decline in headline retail sales. When excluding automobiles, gasoline, and building materials, a gain of 0.2 percent is expected compared with a gain of 0.7 percent last month. January auto sales were softer than expected, and some automakers blamed the weather.

The number comes as another winter storm heads up the east coast, an event that could also mess with the next jobs report since this is the survey week for the February employment report, according to Joseph Lavorgna, chief economist at Deutsche Bank.

Colder winter's economic impact

The last two jobs numbers were particularly poor, and even new Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said the weather may be to blame. However, she also emphasized that it is too soon to jump to conclusions during her first Congressional testimony as Fed chair Tuesday. In fact, Yellen's second testimony is falling victim to the weather and her appearance before the Senate Banking Committee scheduled for Thursday has been postponed.

J.P. Morgan economist Daniel Silver expects to see a retail sales gain of 0.1 percent on the headline number, compared with last month's 0.2 percent gain. "If we get that number, it's going to be one of the softer figures we've seen in a while," he said.

"It looks like auto sales were down a little, gasoline station sales would be lower because of the pricing," he said. "Building materials are going to be flat for the month."

"You also had the expiration of unemployment benefits. That could be a factor weighing on sales," he said.

(Read more: 5 problems retailers must fix in 2014)

Jobless claims are expected at 330,000, off slightly from 331,000 last week. Silver said the President's Day holiday could create some fluctuation in that number, which was temporarily elevated in January. Business inventories are also expected at 10 a.m. There is a $16 billion 30-year bond auction at 1 p.m.

Earnings are expected from Eni, Pepsico, Apache, Avon Products, Borg Warner, Bunge, Calpine, Discovery Communications, Goodyear Tire, Starwood Hotels, EnCana, Generac, Penske Auto Group, Molson Coors, and International Flavors and Fragrances, ahead of the bell. AIG, Cliffs Natural, Kraft Foods, Bankrate, Trulia, Weight Watchers, and Cognex report after the bell.

Stocks meandered Wednesday, after Tuesday's sharp gains amid Yellen's testimony. The Dow was off 30 at 15,963, and the S&P 500 fell less than a point to 1819.

Scott Redler, who follows the market's short-term technicals, said a pullback to the 1795 to 1805 area on the S&P 500 would be a positive place for the market to reset, before moving higher. "We had an escalator up, an elevator down. Then this recent snap back has been a bungee cord. It happened so fast it caught a lot of people off guard."

(Read more: Wicked winter weather chills US economy, stocks)

Patrick Boyle, a trader at BTIG, said he's keeping an eye on the 10-year yield, which moved higher Wednesday and was closing in on 2.80 percent.

Traders are watching anything that would help determine whether the Fed stays on track to taper its bond-buying program. Yellen said it would continue to pare back the purchases, and said there would have to be a big change in the outlook to alter the Fed's course.

Boyle said the market will have to see more from Yellen but for now believes the Fed is on the path to taper, unless the economy sours. "I think she's taken a golf ball and driven it straight down the fairway. It's like Bernanke wrote her comments," Boyle said. "…This was a prepared speech. She needs to be in the seat for a longer amount of time for us to think it's her speaking."

—By CNBC's Patti Domm. Follow her on Twitter @pattidomm.