Earnings season begins in earnest for the Dow Jones Industrials (^DJI -0.55%) this week, with half a dozen of its components prepared to report their results. But even as the earnings onslaught begins, smart investors will still want to pay attention to economic data releases. With retail sales figures due out on Tuesday, industrial production data due on Wednesday, and key figures on housing starts coming on Thursday, Dow investors will get a wide array of useful information on which to base their views of the future of the U.S. economy. Moreover, the news will have specific implications for Home Depot (HD 1.11%) and Caterpillar (CAT -0.70%) as well as having an impact on the entire Dow.

3 big reports
Economists are counting on retail sales to pick up in June after having sluggish performance in May. Motor vehicle sales were particularly strong, but the rest of the retail sector struggled, and investors hope that calls for consistent increases of about 0.6% across the board will equate to better performance in the retail sector. Even high-performing home-improvement retailer Home Depot proved not to be immune to pressures in retail last week, as troubling results from one of its peers weighed on investor sentiment and suggested that the long rise in the housing market could finally be slowing down. Tuesday's data on retail sales will shed some light on that key question.

Source: Caterpillar.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, industrial production figures are expected to show slowing growth over the past month, with a 0.6% rise in May likely to slow to a 0.4% gain in June. Capacity utilization could rise slightly, but it still remains below the 80% level, which indicates that businesses are holding back from producing as much as they could under more favorable circumstances. Nevertheless, with those figures up from just over 70% in early 2010, economists remain comfortable with the path of the economic recovery. For Caterpillar, strength in the industrial economy could equate to greater sales of its heavy equipment, although pressure in the mining industry isn't likely to go away fast enough to bring immediate relief to that hard-hit segment of Caterpillar's business.

Finally, Thursday will bring the latest figures on housing starts and permits, both of which are expected to climb slightly. Many investors have been nervous that most of the new-building activity has come from multi-family construction of apartment buildings and similar projects. If anticipated gains for starts and permits materialize, it'll be interesting to see whether single-family home activity picks up as well, as it would have positive implications not just for Home Depot and Caterpillar but also for the sizable part of the economy related to homes.

Earnings results for the stocks in the Dow Jones Industrials will get most of the attention this week. But keep your eye on these key economic reports, and they could give you some insight into the fundamentals of the economy.