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Wall Street braces for the impact of Hurricane Harvey

Key Points
  • The storm known as Harvey hit Houston and parts of Texas this weekend, and the markets are watching to see how much damage the storm has left in its path.
  • Total rainfall could go as high as 50 inches in some parts.
  • The storm is expected to have a serious impact on the oil and gas industries — and drive prices higher.
Flooding and a damaged home are seen after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017.
Alex Scott | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Wall Street was set to focus on tax reform and the monthly jobs report this week, but the storm known as Harvey created such destruction and devastation over the weekend that it will dominate the focus of the market — and all of America — as the week begins.

Harvey, a hurricane that was later downgraded to a tropical storm, ravaged Houston and other parts of Texas over the weekend, with more than 30 inches of rain falling in some parts in just 48 hours.

The destruction was reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, which hit Louisiana in 2005. The National Weather Service described the storm as "beyond anything experienced."

Five deaths were thought to be storm-related and an estimated 3,000 people had to be rescued from floodwaters. Many families attempted to flee the area but that task was made infinitely more challenging as most major roadways are flooded and deemed impassible.

The rain is expected to last until later this week, with some forecasts suggesting some areas could see a record-breaking 50 inches before it's all over.

The hurricane hit in the heart of oil and gas country and the impact is expected to affect production as many employees evacuate and refineries close. It is also expected to drive both oil and gasoline prices higher. Many refineries escaped serious physical damage from storm winds but the real concern is that many of these facilities have never seen floodwaters this severe. And, it's unknown when personnel will be able to return.

The Gulf Coast between Texas and Alabama is home to refineries that account for 46 percent of U.S. refining capacity. Refineries are concentrated in a number of locations, including Corpus Christi, Houston and Port Arthur in Texas and Lake Charles in Louisiana. That span of coastline accounts for 32 percent of U.S. refining capacity.

President Donald Trump is expected to visit Texas on Tuesday.

Tax reform push

Trump was expected to begin pushing a tax reform plan later this week. Top White House economic advisor Gary Cohn says a framework for a plan has been worked out over the summer, and it will now be up to a House of Representatives committee to fill in the details over the next couple of weeks.

Tax reform has been the stock market's favorite policy proposal from the Trump administration.

A tax cut can spur spending by individuals and corporations. That stimulates the economy and helps companies show more profits, a plus for stock prices. While there's a long road ahead before any proposal can become law, the fact that Cohn announced some details of the tax plan was a positive for the market and sparked a rally in stocks Friday.

The market has been giving low odds to tax reform for fear it could become the next political football, over which Congress will not be able to agree — similar to health-care legislation which failed to win approval over the summer.

Looking for a raise

The economy looks to be picking up some steam. Goldman Sachs on Friday said third-quarter GDP is now tracking at 3 percent, but the economy is still missing one big factor — inflation. The lack of inflation prevents companies from raising prices, which increases profits, and from paying better raises to workers.

That is why the market will be watching the August employment report Friday with an eye on how much wages are rising. That number is not expected to be much for August, just a 0.2 percent increase after July's 0.3 percent gain — or about 2.5 percent annually.

The Federal Reserve, which oversees monetary policy, bases its decision to raise interest rates on the strength of the job market and inflation. The pace of inflation will determine whether the Fed will be able to raise interest rates again this year. For now, economists still expect another quarter-point increase in December.

As for job growth, it is expected to remain solid and economists project 184,000 jobs were added in August, down slightly from 209,000 in July. The unemployment rate is expected to remain at a low 4.3 percent.

Besides Friday's jobs report, there are also consumer confidence and June S&P/Case-Shiller home price data on Tuesday. On Wednesday, there is ADP's private sector employment report and a revised look at second-quarter GDP growth, expected at 2.7 percent. There is also personal income and spending Thursday, which includes a key indicator that the Fed uses to gauge inflation.

The end of summer

The Labor Day weekend is everyone's unofficial end of summer, but it really is the official end of summer doldrums for Wall Street. Before the three-day weekend, trading should still be very quiet, and many will leave their desks within minutes of Friday's 8:30 a.m. ET jobs report.

"That would cause a brief spurt of activity, but it's the beginning of a long weekend and people will be closing up shop early," said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies.