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Retail sales just can’t shake off winter’s chill

Keep an eye on retail: Domm

Economists expect to see an increase of 0.2 percent when February retail sales are reported at 8:30 a.m. ET Thursday, better than January's 0.4 percent decline. Without automobiles, that number is expected to be a sluggish 0.1 percent.

The retail "control" number is expected to be up 0.3 percent. That number is retail sales, minus autos, gasoline and building materials, and that factors into gross domestic product (GDP).

"History suggests you're going to get a bit more noticeable payback in the next few months," said Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, adding that with a March spring back, it could positively influence first quarter GDP.

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Besides retail sales, there are weekly jobless claims and import prices at 8:30 a.m. Business inventories due at 10 a.m., and the government auctions $13 billion in 30-year bonds at 1 p.m.

Traders will also be watching the testimony before the Senate Banking Committee at 10 a.m., when it considers the nominations of Stanley Fischer as Federal Reserve Vice Chairman, and Lael Brainard as Fed Governor. Jerome Powell is also being considered for reappointment as a Governor.

Customers view jewelry at the PANDORA Jewelry Store in San Mateo, California.
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Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery, said the hearings will be watched for how Fischer, in particular, discusses the Fed's current policy. In prepared remarks for the hearing, Fischer stressed the need for the Fed policy to focus on financial stability and said economic normalcy has not yet been restored.

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The hearing also puts the focus on next week's Fed meeting, the first to be presided over by Fed Chair Janet Yellen. Luschini said the issue of how the Fed will back off from its unemployment target of 6.5 percent is of major interest to markets, and it could be a topic next week.

Fed officials have been backing away from their target of a 6.5 percent unemployment rate set as a level to begin considering a reversal of its low short-term rate policy. They have stressed it is a target, not a trigger but they have not yet discarded the language.

"The question is, is the Fed going to do something, and if they do, how are they going to phrase that? That could be delicate," Luschini said.

"How do they put the genie back in the bottle," he said. The Fed is expected to continue to emphasize that does not intend to raise the Fed funds target rate from zero for a long time, even though unemployment is now at 6.7 percent.

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Edward Marrinan, co-head market strategy for RBS Americas, said the Fed has the chore of moving markets away from 'quantitative easing' to 'qualitative easing.' It's widely expected to reduce its bond purchases, or quantitative easing program, by another $10 billion next week.

"Ms. Yellen has her work cut out to transition the market place from the specifics of quantitative forward guidance to the vagaries that are implied by qualitative forward guidance. I hope it works out smoothly, but I worry that there is a chance volatility will increase around the risks of policy error or miscommunication," he said.

There are several earnings expected Thursday, including Dollar General, Gogo, Ulta Salon, SeaWorld, Aeropostale, Mattress Firm, Zumiez, and Surgical Care Affiliates.

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