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Here are the biggest things markets are watching

  • Big banks are the first companies to report earnings for the first quarter
  • Yellen speaks Monday, and big economic reports come out when markets are closed Friday
  • Congress is away, but D.C. will still be an important source of headlines—and maybe intrigue

The four days before the long Easter weekend can sometimes be dullsville for markets — but don't expect that to be the case this year.

First of all, earnings season starts with JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo all reporting Thursday. Strategists have been praying that a super strong earnings season will make investors switch focus from Washington to corporate and economic fundamentals.

There's also Fed speak, with an appearance by U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen on Monday afternoon. Important economic data, such as consumer inflation, is also expected, with most of it landing on Good Friday when the stock market is closed. That will be especially important after March's surprisingly weak jobs report raised questions about the economy's pace of growth.

Congress may be taking spring break, but Washington could still be the source of plenty of market-moving headlines. There are a bunch of things that will be important, including the aftermath of the U.S. attack on Syria and what really went on at President Donald Trump's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Also, if there's a shakeup of the White House staff, as reported Friday, would that be a good or a bad thing?

Best sales growth since 2011

First-quarter earnings growth is now expected at 10.1 percent, the best since 2014, but sales growth, a laggard in the financial recovery, is expected to jump by 7.5 percent, the best since 2011, according to Thomson Reuters.

"Earnings will thankfully become the driver of stock prices in the next couple of weeks. I think that should be a positive for stocks," said Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors.

Several of the biggest U.S. banks kick off the earnings season Thursday, and S&P financial sector profits are expected to be up 15.3 percent with revenues, up 7.5 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.

"That in the short term should be and will be the next big thing that helps boost stock prices," Arone said. "I think the good news is we'll be heading toward earnings season, which hopefully will dampen some of the geopolitical noise, and get us back to the fundamentals that drive stocks."

Yellen as 'second semester senior'

Fed Chair Yellen, just days after the Fed minutes rocked stocks, appears in a laid-back college setting Monday afternoon at the University of Michigan. Yellen will take questions and she could be asked about the Fed's plan to start paring back its balance sheet, which grew to $4.5 trillion due to the financial crisis.

The Fed's comment on that, and also the fact some officials see stock prices as too high, rippled through markets Wednesday afternoon. At the 4:10 p.m. ET address, she could be asked to elaborate. The Fed was fuzzy on how it would reduce the holdings of Treasurys and mortgages but said it would like to start this year.

"I think if there's some directed questions regarding policy, she might be a little more open. I think she's been more forthcoming in these open forums," said Joe Song, senior U.S. economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

"It seems like she's a second semester senior in some ways. There's a light at the end of the tunnel. She's being a little more charismatic, a little more open," he said.

Song said if Yellen is asked about the balance sheet, she will likely respond with the type of comments already made by New York Fed President William Dudley. Dudley said the Fed may raise rates a couple more times and then pause as it takes action with the balance sheet.

He said the markets could move on her comments but she is unlikely to say anything very substantially different.

As for the economic data, the most important reports — retail sales and the consumer price index — are released Friday morning, when the stock market is closed but bond and other futures markets are open.

Retail sales will be particularly important because of the sudden surprise slowdown in car sales in March. Excluding autos, sales are expected to be up 0.2 percent, but the headline number is expected to be down 0.1 percent.

Consumer price index inflation is expected to be flat, but core is expected to rise 0.2 percent.

Washington drama

Congress is away for spring break, and the White House plans for the annual Easter egg roll on the day after Easter, but expect a lot of activity behind the scenes. Traders are hoping to hear more about what was discussed by Trump and Xi. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters Friday that Trump and Xi agreed to a 100-day plan to discuss trade.

There also was some intrigue in Friday afternoon headlines about a possible shakeup among West Wing advisors. But the White House pushed back on reports that the president's advisor Steve Bannon and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus were being reassigned.

The aftermath of the president's first significant military foray, the bombing of a Syrian air strip, will also be watched. Markets will also continue to be laser focused on any comments made from any quarter on the state of health care or tax reform, even if there is only minor movement.

"All eyes will be on the big broad bucket that is Washington," said Arone.

What to Watch

Monday

4:10 p.m. Fed Chair Janet Yellen delivers remarks at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy

Tuesday

6:00 a.m. NFIB survey

10:00 a.m. JOLTS

1:45 p.m. Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari

Wednesday

Earnings: Fastenal, Shaw Communications, Pier 1 Imports

8:30 a.m. Import prices

2:00 p.m. Federal budget

Thursday

Earnings: Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, PNC Financial, Taiwan Semiconductor, First Republic Bank, Commerce Bancshares, Apogee, Infosys

8:30 a.m. Jobless claims

8:30 a.m. PPI

Friday

U.S. markets closed

8:30 a.m. Retail sales

8:30 a.m. CPI

10:00 a.m. Consumer sentiment

10:00 a.m. Business inventories

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