Wall Street returns from vacation season to enter what is historically the most perilous period of the year amid conflicting signals on the US’ economic outlook.
Trade over the past week was choppy as investors reacted to various data that pointed toward both economic weakness and strength.
In the week to Friday, the blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average gave back 0.72 percent to finish the week at 11,543.96.
The broad-market Standard & Poor’s 500 index lost 0.73 percent to 1,282.83 and the technology-heavy NASDAQ composite shed 1.95 percent to 2,367.52.
The main indexes closed lower for the week but held onto gains for a strong August. The Dow rose 1.92 percent, the NASDAQ 2.44 percent and S&P index 1.78 percent in the month.
The market was set to reopen on Tuesday after the Labor Day holiday, commencing what is traditionally a treacherous month.
“Many investors believe October is the worst month for equity market returns. This can be partly attributable to the fact some large one-day declines have occurred in October,” said David Templeton of the financial Web site Seeking Alpha.
“In actuality though, the worst month for market returns is September. Although the average return in September is negative, the magnitude of the decline was no worse than one to 1.5 percent,” he said.
Cross-currents affecting the market in recent weeks included up-and-down economic data and volatile oil prices.
News that US GDP expanded by a stronger-than-expected 3.3 percent in the second quarter was offset by data showing a weak 0.2 percent gain in July consumer spending and a 0.7 percent drop in incomes.
The conflicting figures have economists in a heated debate over what to believe.
“The economy is weaker than the GDP data might suggest and is not expected to repeat the growth of the first half,” Ryan Sweet at Economy.com said. “Risks of another contraction in real GDP will remain elevated through the first half of 2009 as labor and housing markets search for their bottoms.”
Ethan Harris, economist at Lehman Brothers, said the economy has managed to be resilient in the face of numerous shocks.
“In the face of gale force winds from the housing, credit and commodity markets, the economy continues to bend, but not break,” he said.
In the coming week, the market will digest reports on monthly sales from automakers, expected to underscore consumer malaise as well as weakness in the manufacturing sector.
“We saw a slight improvement [in auto sales] in July, but don’t expect to see a major recovery for the remainder of the year,” Jesse Toprak of research firm Edmunds.com said.
Also on tap is a report Friday on US payrolls, which have been shrinking since the start of the year.
The monthly payrolls figures “have spelled recession, other indicators not, a divergence that should continue in the week ahead,” said Avery Shenfeld, economist at CIBC World Markets.
Wells Fargo economist Eugenio Aleman said inflation is another concern for the market. One government report on Friday showed the yearly inflation pace was running at a hefty 4.5 percent.
“While economic growth seems to be in the minds of everybody, I still worry about inflation,” he said. “The trend is clearly upwards and will continue to remain on that path if the Federal Reserve continues to be as irresponsible as it has been until now.”