The Street This Week: Back to Business

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"What do you expect," one CNBC pundit-on-the-floor exclaimed from the thick of last week’s super-thin trading finale. "It’s a Friday afternoon in August."

And what an August. So flat that it’s once again getting to be amateur’s work to spot the general contour of this market. The bubble days of up, up, up were obviously a lot more fun, but this dog-days landscape has its own quixotic poetry. Homework assignment: Go to Kansas, look around and ask the locals if there’s a mountain coming anytime soon. They’ll tell you what’s what.

And yet some people keep seeing something out there. Goldman Sachs kicked off the action Monday by running with the semiconductor bulls and declaring that the sector was definitely at a bottom. "The recovery writing is on the wall," the company wrote Monday morning, "and we don't see how investors will be able to resist the inflection point."

Suffice it to say they were resisting it rather heroically well into Monday morning. But if what this market needs — and it’s a big if — is more wall-writing, the business-recovery-or-lack-thereof indicators will be flying fast and thick this week, and maybe with the Manhattan heat wave and its attendant "electrical emergency" fading, we’ll get some direction, one way or the other.

Tuesday is sales day, with July retail sales hitting at 8:30 a.m., Wal-Mart and Home Depot reporting quarterly results, and Don Rumsfeld hawking U.S. missile defense to Putin’s Kremlin.

Retail sales are expected to fall a tolerable 0.2 percent in July, led by declining auto sales, and while that’s not good, it’s still a July number, which will make it possible for Wall Street to continue to wait for those rebate checks to lift all our boats. Wal-Mart and Home Depot should both deliver good news, but we knew they would, and most Wall Street forecasters expect Rummy to make decent progress with the Russians by explaining the urgent post-Cold-War need for the world’s lone superpower to deploy a massive network of space-based weaponry against Osama bin Laden.

Oh. And the Bank of Japan will cut its benchmark interest rate by 0.01 percent to 0.02 percent, in the hopes of stimulating consumer spending over there. (May not reflect actual numbers.)

Wednesday, while markets in Chile, France, India, Italy, South Korea, Spain and Switzerland take the day off, Wall Street soldiers on and hears about — drumroll, please — June business inventories, July industrial production, and July capacity utilization.

This could be a reasonably big deal, if anything untoward comes out. As it is, the Street’s expecting a slight trimming of inventories (good), a slightly-smaller-than-last-month decrease in production (good, I suppose) and a tiny bump in capacity utilization. That’s good too, but at the microscopic increments expected we won’t be cleaning up tickertape at the closing bell. Still, a favorable trend is better than the other kind.

Thursday’s July CPI number is a little harder to peg, given that we’re still reading conflicting accounts of whether that was inflation or deflation looming in the shadows of last week’s PPI. The Consumer Price Index, of course, is the inflation number we can spot at the mall, and with discount wars festering across the retail scape, it’s hard to imagine July prices doing anything levitationary — at least not enough to scare Greenspan into cutting out the rate cuts August 21.

We also get word on the housing sector via housing starts. Barron’s frontman Alan Abelson got stomachs clenched everywhere this weekend by declaring an imminent bubble in the sector everybody thanks for keeping consumers spending this long. Then it turned out he was just talking about homebuilding stocks like Centex shedding a few bucks "in the years ahead." Not to denigrate the value of that (probably accurate) insight to Centex investors or other housing-watchers, but we’ve got bigger, more imminent fish to fear. Also Thursday: Weekly jobless claims, and a fresh four-week rolling average that will hopefully stay below 400,000, and an economic survey from the influential Philadelphia Fed.

Exclusive sneak peek: the report will find the economy still weak, particularly in manufacturing. Hide the children.

A slow Friday — a U.S. trade deficit number, expected to be on the rise again, that has very little to do with anything you should care about right now. And at 10:00 a.m., or whenever Reuters leaks it to the rest of us, we get the University of Michigan’s measure of consumer sentiment.

The Michigan number used to move hearts and minds back in the spring, when a recession was constantly threatening to swoop down and savage our livestock. But it’s become sort of the default conventional wisdom that consumers’ walletary outlook, while probably past its peak, is on the gentlest of downward slopes — and that business-centric numbers like inventory and production are the other shoe worth watching for.

But consumer sentiment — especially at the end of a week of business-side stats — always picks up a little earth-shaking power in advance of a Fed meeting, and next Tuesday’s smart-money pick of a quarter-point cut is actually beginning to feel pretty uncertain. If that bet changes, we could see some action this week. If not, well, it’s a Friday afternoon in August — what did you expect?