Show us the jobs. That's what Wall Street will be hoping for in the week ahead, when the closely watched monthly jobs report and a fresh batch of economic data are set for release.
Investors will be searching for signs that the U.S. economic recovery remains on track -- and if they get some positive evidence, that could persuade them to buy stocks. If not -- or if the economic reports send mixed signals -- then stocks are likely to stay in a holding pattern or decline slightly.
The government's March payrolls report, not due until Friday, is likely to be the week's main event, particularly as questions have resurfaced about the sustainability of the economy's surprisingly strong rebound from recession.
Last Thursday's hefty rally notwithstanding, the stock market is still struggling to find its footing since it began a sharp retreat early this month.
"The economy seems to have lost some of its strength," said Rick Meckler, president of investment firm LibertyView Asset Management. "That's a concern because it's what drives continued earnings growth, and it's leading some investors to conclude that stocks are at a plateau."
Speculation that employment growth is not strong enough to support consumer spending -- a force that powers two-thirds of U.S. economic growth -- has been an issue nagging stock investors in recent months, and it will put Friday's report in the spotlight.
Economists polled by Reuters predicted that 103,000 jobs were added to U.S. payrolls in March, versus February's rise of only 21,000. They expect the unemployment rate to remain steady at 5.6%.
"This seems to be the one number that people care about, in terms of giving them confidence the economy is not slipping back into recession," Meckler said.
Investors also will be looking out for the Institute for Supply Management's March survey of the manufacturing sector, as well as monthly data on consumer sentiment, factory orders and construction.
The corporate earnings flow remains light this week, but some retailers will issue their results at midweek, including consumer electronics retailer Best Buy Co. Inc. and rival Circuit City Stores Inc.