Stocks on track for strong week but wary of Ebola news

Stocks head into Friday on track for the best weekly performance in 22 months, after several snap back rallies put the S&P 500 within just several percent of its all-time high.

Companies ranging from consumer products giant Procter and Gamble to Ford Motors and Bristol-Myers Squibb report ahead of the opening bell. New home sales data are reported at 10 a.m. EDT. Markets will also be on watch for any geopolitical headlines or Ebola-related news after reports of a doctor being tested in a New York hospital took some of the steam out of the heated market rally Thursday.

Some solid corporate earnings from multinationals and improved global manufacturing data helped push aside fears of a weakening economy, which a number of strategists now say were overblown.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

"I do think the earnings gains are now stabilizing the market," said Steven Wieting, global chief strategist at Citi Private Bank. He said the slowdown in the global economy had been taken as a given. "There just wasn't this grand downturn … people are all focused on policy and not the nitty gritty of the data."

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Two global playersCaterpillar and 3Msaw their shares soar in earnings related gains Thursday. Caterpillar, often an indicator for global growth, raised its full-year guidance. After-the-bell results from Microsoft and may also influence the market Friday. Shares of Microsoft, a Dow component, rose in late trading after it reported better-than-expected revenue. But was crushed, losing more than 10 percent after reporting weaker revenue, a wider loss and warning on lower sales expectations.

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Earnings for the S&P 500 should be up more than 7 percent this quarter, based on those that reported and expected reports, according to Thomson Reuters. About 69 percent of S&P companies so far have beat on earnings per share, and 59 percent have beaten revenue estimates.

PMI data for China and the eurozone surprised to the upside Thursday. Those manufacturing reports were being closely watched since fears of a global slowdown have been unnerving markets, just as the Fed is expected to signal the end of its quantitative easing policy at next week's meeting. There have also been concerns Europe's economy is worsening, and that the European Central Bank will not be able to move forcefully enough to stave off recession.

"A little over a week ago, people were talking about recession, not relation. Now they're talking about reflation, not recession," said Michael Hartnett, Bank of America Merrill Lynch chief investment strategist.

In the past week, the S&P 500 has swiftly recovered much of the 9.8 percent loss made on an intraday basis between late September and Oct. 15. It is up 7.1 percent from the drop to 1,820, and up 3.4 percent week to date. As of Thursday, the S&P and Nasdaq were on track for the best week since January 2013. The S&P gained 1.2 percent Thursday to 1,950, and the Dow was up 1.3 percent to 16,677, while the Nasdaq was up 1.6 percent to 4,452.

Hartnett said the end of Fed easing, which has been ruffling markets, will not be a problem as long as the economy grows at a strong enough pace.

"The Fed just needs the economy to do OK, to just finish what it's doing, and the bears will have a tough time if that's the case. The Fed is dovish and all other things being equal, that is helpful to the market," he said. The market will be fine "only if the economy is growing 3 percent plus. If the economy is growing at 2 percent, it's not OK with it. it's that simple."

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Bank stress tests results, expected for European banks Sunday could be a short-term negative for markets. "Long-term, no. They have to happen. They have to create a pricing mechanism for the assets of the European banks, and only once banks are able to reduce their assets is the market going to feel comfortable that European banks will support the European economy," Hartnett said.

He said when the market went down sharply last week, investors were caught in investments they should not have been in, with the dollar moving higher and oil going sharply lower.

"The market goes lower because the market's not happy with policy makers or the profit outlook, and then you smoke a lot of people out. You were in a situation last Wednesday when you got some real pain across the street. A couple of things happened after that. You got some decent data from the U.S., and Europe didn't look like it was falling into the abyss," Hartnett said. "Last week, you had (unemployment) claims that were verified by other strong claims today. Suddenly, good news is good news because people were worried there would be a profit recession or an economic recession."

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The small-cap sector had been flashing a warning before the broader market meltdown, and now that it's recovering it should not see the type of outsized gains of previous years. Small caps and other assets, like high-yield bonds, were benefiting from the Fed's zero-rate policies, he said.

"I think people are wising up to the fact the future of the equity market is okay, but it's not going to be as great as it was," he said.

Other companies reporting earnings Friday, include UPS, Shire, Moody's, Nasdaq OMX, State Street, Cabot Oil and Gas, Avery Dennison and Delphi Automotive.