The Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) had fallen 10.6 points as of 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday as investors responded to uncertainty about the future direction of the market and the global economy. Although some economic reports this morning shed light on conditions in the U.S., market, participants are focusing on two key events later this week that have direct ramifications for Dow components General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), as well as collateral impacts throughout the stock market.
This morning, investors got the latest figures on the trade deficit, service-sector strength, and the state of private employment. The ADP jobs report showed a jump of 179,000 private-sector employment last month, a figure that was more than 30,000 jobs less than most economists had expected. Moreover, the trade deficit hit its highest level since 2012, pointing to higher demand for imported goods. But stronger readings for the health of service-providing businesses helped limit the Dow's loss.
Yet most market watchers are waiting for two key events. First, the European Central Bank is expected tomorrow to announce whether it will take further action to try to stimulate the continent's economy, which has struggled to emerge from recession. The consensus is that ECB President Mario Draghi will reduce the ECB's benchmark and deposit rates, reflecting the threat of deflation and its potential negative impact on the sluggish recovery that Europe has seen. Still, the real key is whether the ECB will add any other weapons to its arsenal in fighting for stronger growth, perhaps coming up with innovations like the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing program in efforts to broaden the ECB's influence over the financial markets in the eurozone.
The second key event is the U.S. Labor Department's nonfarm payroll jobs report on Friday. Today's private-sector report painted a less than perfect picture of the employment market, and although the two metrics don't track each other perfectly, many of the same factors come into play across the ADP and Labor Department reports. Investors are walking a fine line, as they want to see continued strength in the economy but worry that the Fed might raise interest rates sooner rather than later if figures are too strong.
For General Electric and Wal-Mart, the stakes are high. General Electric is trying to acquire the energy business of French giant Alstom, but concerns in France about the economic impact of the acquisition on the labor force have led officials to consider alternatives to a GE buyout. The weaker Europe's economy grows, the more protectionist General Electric can expect French officials to become as companies on the continent circle the wagons and defend their home economy. By contrast, if the ECB can support the economy, then reduced fears could make a General Electric-Alstom deal more likely to go forward.
Meanwhile, on the jobs front, Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the nation, and it has faced concerns recently about pressure for a minimum wage hike that would increase the retailer's labor costs. Given that Wal-Mart has already struggled to grow, adding further cost increases could only further hurt profitability for the Dow's biggest retail component, raising new questions about long-term growth.
For now, the Dow Jones Industrials are playing a waiting game. But by later this week, investors should have a better sense of what's in store for the index and the U.S. economy more broadly.