Data in focus as investors digest the Fed minutes

Investors will look at a series of backward-looking data on Thursday as the market attempts to pin down the timing of a Fed rate hike.

Stocks pared losses but failed to turn completely positive following the release of the surprisingly dovish Fed minutes at 2 p.m. on Wednesday.

"The markets are weighing soft economic data against a Fed that is not entering strengthening," said Ben Garber, economist at Moody's Analytics.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Earlier on Wednesday, U.S. housing data, industrial production and the producer price index posted disappointing figures that fell short of the optimistic picture indicated by the upbeat jobs report earlier in the month.

The Nasdaq was the only major index to end the day in the black, up 7.10 points, at 4,906.36. The Dow Jones industrial average traded in its narrowest range since Dec. 29 to close down 17.7 points at 18,029.85 and the S&P 500 down just 0.66 points, near its record at 2,099.68. A more than 2 percent decline on Exxon Mobil weighed on both major indices, as investors digested news of Berkshire Hathaway's sale of its stake in the firm and news of an explosion at an Exxon refinery in California.

Bank stocks and U.S. Treasury yields plunged immediately following the release of the minutes.

Oil prices held steady, with crude settling down $1.39 at $52.14 a barrel. The energy sector closed down 1.5 percent as the greatest laggard on the S&P 500.

Kim Forrest, senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital, said economic data reports should be taken with a grain of salt as they reflect the previous month, when oil prices had not yet stabilized around the current $52 level.

On Thursday, weekly jobless claims come out at 8:30 a.m. After the opening bell comes the initial PMI Manufacturing Index at 9:45 a.m., the Philly Fed Survey and leading indicators at 10 a.m.

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Investors will also get insight on the energy industry with natural gas and oil inventories due at 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., respectively.

Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital, expects claims to fall 15,000. To him, the most important economic indicators out Thursday are the PMI Manufacturing Flash and the Philly Fed report.

Analysts polled by Reuters expect the Markit PMI Flash to come in at 54 for February, above last month's reading of 53.7.

TD Ameritrade's JJ Kinahan is looking at Wal-Mart's earnings report before the bell on Thursday to see "where are those sales coming from" and if consumer spending is really picking up.

Other companies reporting earnings on Thursday include Newmont Mining and Nordstrom.

Stabilization in earnings overall is important, said Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management.

"We have seen equities near all-time highs while earnings are being reset lower, (which is) unsustainable," he said. "It's an earnings-driven market that will put focus back on the Fed and geopolitical issues."

Stocks cheered some encouraging news out of Greece on Wednesday as the European Central Bank approved a 68 billion euro ($78 billion), two-week extension on emergency liquidity for Greek banks, Reuters reported, citing a source.

On Thursday, Greece is expected to request the euro zone extend a "loan agreement" for up to six months, Reuters said. Germany has denied the deal's existence and that Athens must keep the terms of the existing international bailout.

"The Greek situation continues to evolve, continues to be a bit of brinkmanship with neither Greece or the euro zone content to let things go over the edge," said David O'Malley, CEO of Penn Mutual Asset Management. "This sort of extension continues that process."

In other commodity news, gold settled down 0.7 percent at $1,200.20 an ounce, the lowest close since Jan. 2.

Cardillo attributed the decline to the lack of Chinese purchases due to the Lunar New Year, which begins on Thursday.

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He said in a note that "the World Gold Council last week reported that central banks last year supported the price adding 477.2 tons to their balance sheets" and recommends buying gold, seeing a rebound to $1,300 an ounce.

Correction: This version corrected the attribution of the quotation that begins: "The Greek situation continues to evolve ..." to David O'Malley.