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Market awaits earnings season starting tomorrow

Dow can break through 17,000 if earnings growth tops 1.1% estimate

US STOCKS finished the week more or less flat after a tepid March jobs growth report on Friday interrupted a string of record highs.

US employers added a net 192,000 jobs in March - more or less in line with the official average of Wall Street economist estimates of about 195,000.

After strong findings from payroll processor Automated Data Processing's report and other jobs indicators, traders had bet on a "whisper number" of 250,000 to 280,000, said Quincy Krosby, investment strategist at Prudential Financial.

While there were positive signs in the March report - the refusal of the unemployment rate to budge from 6.7 per cent was likely related to the return of long-term jobless people to Labor Department rolls - it also served as a reminder of the job market's structural weaknesses.

Earlier in the week, an Institute for Supply Management manufacturing output showed a pick-up in activity, and yet factories surveyed by the Labor Department laid off more people than they hired.

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Most strategists say the stock market has treaded water since crises in Ukraine and other emerging markets died down in late March. This week is the beginning of what the financial world has been waiting for: earnings season. On aggregate, Wall Street analysts estimate first-quarter earnings for the Standard & Poor's 500 will grow by a mere 1.1 per cent from last year's levels - a "very low threshold", said Prudential's Ms Krosby.

If corporations can top those modest expectations, the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average could finally break through the 1,900 and 17,000 marks they first approached in December.

"This is a market trying to ascertain are these valuations commensurate with underlying growth . . . (it's) waiting for earnings season," said Ms Krosby.

Earnings season begins officially tomorrow, when aluminium processor Alcoa is expected to report a modest increase in earnings. Shares of Alcoa and other metals processors have rebounded somewhat after a long slide as some traders and analysts bet China will soon invest in economic stimulus again, thus benefiting the commodities sector.

In a note entitled "Don't count out commodities just yet", analysts at brokerage BMO Capital said many dire Wall Street predictions for the prices of metals and other raw materials were overstated.

"Something funny happened on the way to the commodity cataclysm - broad measures of commodities are actually up so far this year, and up from year-ago levels," the BMO analysts said.

In a world where there always seems to be a "crisis du jour", an investor must learn to distinguish between "news" and "noise", said J D Joyce, author of The Story of Rich, an investment fable.

"If news is more about earnings and (what) someone's willing to pay for those earnings then what is noise? And to me noise is almost everything else," said Mr Joyce.

"Things that may seem really important today may have little to no impact, long term, on a portfolio. Sometimes it could be a short-term geopolitical event; it could be various economic stats . . . When there's data being released or an exogenous event that has nothing to do with earnings, there's a knee jerk reaction - almost in panic mode - that causes someone to depart from a long-term plan."

Last week, there was a lot of noise, some of which may eventually turn out to be news.

Author Michael Lewis set off one of the most bitter and profound debates in financial circles in a generation when he launched his book Flash Boys. The book alleges the hedge funds and trading firms known as high-frequency traders have deliberately "rigged" the electronic stock market to their advantage.

Lewis and others are calling for wide reforms. Their opponents, some of whom are in the business of high-speed electronic trading, claim this activity makes it easier and cheaper to buy and sell stock and that any reforms could backfire.

In addition to earnings season, traders will pay close attention to the minutes of the March Federal Reserve meeting this week. Janet Yellen jarred markets when she seemed to suggest that the central bank could hike rates in 2015.

Details of the first policy debate Ms Yellen chaired could calm investors' nerves, said Ms Krosby. More likely, however, is that the nerves will persist. Part of the trouble for the S&P 500 and the Dow is "technical".

"The record highs first reached in December have become psychological blocks. The indexes have fallen back so many times from the levels they hit once again last week that traders are reluctant to buy there," she said.

"Any time you go through a new level, the market tends to get nervous (and say) 'do we really mean this'?"

"This is what happens when you push through new technical levels: you wait for confirmation, and that confirmation comes from earnings."

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