With Wall Street veering close to the November bear market lows, the market is likely to be awash with caution next week as investors look for clarity on how the government plans to shore up banks, housing and the falling economy.
As a dismal earnings season winds down, analysts will also be taking stock of the damage and re-evaluating expectations for the year as companies have reduced or withdrawn their outlooks and announced massive layoffs.
While the bulk of the heavy-hitters have already reported their quarterly results, earnings from Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, are expected next week. This week, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's new bank rescue plan failed to restore confidence in the financial system, rattling investors who had high hopes for a plan that would bolster the sector.
The markets remain in the dark about exactly how the plan will relieve banks of money-losing assets.
"I was disappointed with the lack of detail," said Scott Wren, senior equity strategist at Wachovia Securities in St Louis.
"Probably the administration's going to be spending a lot of time over the weekend – they certainly have over the last few days – realising that the market's going to need some details."
The markets will be closed tomorrow for the Presidents Day holiday.
The White House said President Barack Obama will outline on Wednesday a plan to stem foreclosures, seen as key to staving off the economic decline that has spread around the world.
Wren said more details could spur a short-term rally in stocks, but until more nuts and bolts are made known the markets will have difficulty sustaining any gains.
On Friday, the Dow Jones industrial average ended down 82.35 points, or 1.04 per cent, at 7,850.41, its lowest close since the November. 20 bear market closing low. The Standard and Poor's 500 Index fell 8.35 points, or 1.00 per cent, to 826.84. The Nasdaq Composite Index was off 7.35 points, or 0.48 per cent, to 1,534.36.
The broad S&P 500 is up about 10 per cent from the bear market lows hit in late November, which marked the index's lowest levels in more than 11 years.
The S&P had started the year up roughly 20 per cent from the lows.
Indexes slumped for the week, with the bank rescue plan and agreement on the economic stimulus package doing little to reassure investors. The S&P 500 tumbled 4.8 per cent, its worst weekly fall since late November. The Dow fell 5.2 per cent, while the Nasdaq was down 3.6 per cent.
As investors remain on watch for more policy moves out of Washington, analysts said the direction of stocks will be tied to daily news in the short-term and will likely continue to test the November lows.
"My expectations are for continued extreme volatility – I would call it manic depressive mood swings," said Harry Rady, chief executive officer and portfolio manager for Rady Asset Management in San Diego.
"Longer term, as the market realises that whatever plan the government puts forth is not going to be enough to solve the problem, I think the market could blow through 7,000 on the Dow and go as low as 6,000 – and I think that could occur in the next 30 days," said Rady
Wal-Mart, which reports results on Tuesday, is expected to post lower earnings per share than a year ago, revealing that this defensive stalwart is not immune to plunging consumer demand.
The earnings season has been characterised by deep losses and write-downs, forcing companies to slash jobs and cut or withdraw guidance for the year.
The dismal results have dampened investors' expectations for the year.
Analysts have revised down their estimates for the first and second quarters and now anticipate growth will not be seen until the fourth quarter.
Paul Nolte, director of investments at Hinsdale Associates, in Hinsdale Illinois, said that while the fourth quarter of 2009 should be better than the final quarter of last year, it is not a huge leap considering how bad the numbers have been.
"With a lot of companies pulling back on guidance, it is going to be a little bit harder to discern what earnings are going to be like until we get to the end of the earnings season," said Nolte.