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Focus turns to U.S. data as China slowdown looms

NEW YORK: After a dizzying two weeks that saw a rapid plunge and rebound in equity prices, investors are looking forward to a week of economic data that may provide clarity on the likelihood of a near-term U.S. interest rate hike and help tamp down the market’s recent wild swings.

The economic figures will culminate in Friday’s jobs report that should reveal more about the strength of the U.S. economy. Car sales, construction spending, the Federal Reserve’s “beige book” and jobs growth may show the economy is strong enough to withstand the first rate hike in nearly a decade from the Federal Reserve, despite worries about a hard landing for China’s economy.

Global stock markets were stung by severe swings in recent weeks, stoked by concerns that a slowdown in China’s economy may be more harsh than anticipated.

But after confirming a move into correction territory, the S&P 500 rebounded to score its best two-day percentage gain in over six years this week, as comments from Fed officials led some investors to believe the market turmoil and global growth concerns had diminished the possibility of a rate hike at the central bank’s September meeting.

A September rate increase hasn’t been ruled out, however. Fed Vice President Stanley Fischer told CNBC during the Fed’s annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that the committee was “heading in the direction” of higher rates. Traders in futures markets that bet on rate increases boosted September’s odds after his words.

“There is a narrative out there that Yellen’s Fed is looking for a reason to delay the rate hike; I don’t think that is necessarily the case,” said Brad McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial in Waltham, Massachusetts.

“If we continue this run of strong data and if the market keeps coming back or at least doesn’t keep dropping, that makes September more likely.”

After a stronger-than-expected revision to second quarter gross domestic product and solid durable goods figures, another run of strong data next week could bolster the case for a rate increase next month. As of early August, most U.S. primary dealers polled expected a September rate increase.

But traders also are also mindful of the fact that the Chinese slowdown could hit U.S. companies and their shares disproportionately in the second half of the year, with luxury goods companies and industrials among the groups paying a price.

Thomson Reuters data shows third-quarter earnings expectations have dropped 6.4 percent for the industrial sector and 8.8 percent for the materials sector since July 1.

Should analysts continue to downgrade their expectations for third- and fourth-quarter earnings in those sectors or more broadly, that could make stocks more expensive, even after the recent selloff.

“It is more important to the U.S. whether or not GM and Ford can sell cars there,” said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst, Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

“That is probably what a softening of the Chinese economy could affect and it factors into the earnings of these companies.”

Should next week’s data show the U.S. economy continues to slowly improve, market volatility is likely to remain as investors grapple with the possibility of a September hike and its ramifications for risk assets.

“Markets and investors were nervous anyway about this normalization anyway after years without a raise,” said Peter Kenny, chief market strategist at Clearpool Group in New York.

“If we were not in a position where markets are as jittery as they are as a result of the China deceleration story, it would be fair to say a rate move of 25 basis points would be able to be managed by the world’s largest economy.”

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