All eyes on the Fed

As a tumultuous year nears an end, investors turn their attention to the Fed for an indication of when near-zero interest rates might begin to rise.

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By Alexandra Twin, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- As an insistent stock market rally coasts into the new year, investors are starting to look forward -- raising questions about just what kind of recovery we're in for.

Investors are mulling two contrary thoughts, said Bernard McGinn, CEO at McGinn Investment Management: "Either we've turned a corner and things are looking better or it's still rough out there and we need to be cautious."

The push and pull between the two ideas has left stocks churning so far this month, with the major gauges barely changed from three weeks ago and trading volume notably low for this time of year.

At the same time, the previously weak dollar has started to come back a little and the economic news has been more positive.

A stronger dollar is good for the country and good for the stock market in the long-term, but in the short term the slight rebound in the greenback has put some pressure on the market. The weak dollar has played a role in the nine-month old stock market rally, by boosting dollar-traded commodities and the shares of companies that do a lot of business overseas.

On the economic front, recent reports on retail sales, housing and the labor market have added to evidence that the worst recession since the 1930s is over. That's raised questions about when the Federal Reserve may step in to remove some of the fuel it has poured on the market and the economy this year.

A slowdown in the pace of job cuts has helped boost investor confidence, which in turn gave a lift to retail sales last month. But the holiday season is still looking iffy, and with the unemployment rate at 10% and just shy of a 26-year high, the Federal Reserve is unlikely to act anytime soon.

"[Fed Chairman] Bernanke has made it clear he's going to keep interest rates low for a while, but the Fed also need to be careful because of the eventual inflation threat," said Kevin Mahn, managing director at Hennion & Walsh.

Federal Reserve: The latest central bank rate policy meeting gets under way Tuesday, concluding Wednesday. The bankers, led by Chairman Ben Bernanke, are widely expected to hold the federal funds rate, a key overnight bank lending rate, steady at historic lows near zero.

What the bankers say in the statement about the economy will be of the greatest interest to investors, in particular, if they should hint at when they might begin to raise interest rates.

The Fed's decision to hold interest rates low this year -- as well as to inject billions of dollars into the financial system -- are credited with helping the economy to avert a bigger disaster. The Fed's actions also played a role in the big stock market rally of the last nine months.

The week ahead also brings reports on housing, the labor market, and consumer and wholesale inflation. The direction of the dollar and the movement in commodities will also remain front and center.

On the docket

Monday: There are no market-moving economic or corporate events scheduled for Monday.

Tuesday: The Producer Price index (PPI), a measure of wholesale inflation, is due in the morning from the Commerce Department.

PPI is expected to have risen 0.9% in November after rising 0.3% in October. So-called core PPI, which strips out volatile food and energy prices, is expected to have risen 0.2% after falling 0.6% in October.

Also in the morning, the Federal Reserve will report on manufacturing activity. November capacity utilization is expected to have risen to 71.1% from 70.7% in October. Industrial production is expected to have risen 0.6% after rising 0.1% in October.

The Empire Manufacturing index, due out in the morning, is expected to show manufacturing activity in the New York area rose to 25 from 23.51 in November.

Best Buy (BBY, Fortune 500) is expected to report quarterly earnings before the start of trade. The retailer is expected to have earned 42 cents versus 35 cents a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters estimates.

Also on Tuesday, Dow component General Electric (GE, Fortune 500) holds its annual outlook meeting for investors.

Wednesday: The Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measure of consumer inflation, is due in the morning from the Commerce Department.

November CPI is expected to show little to no change after rising 0.2% in the previous month. Core CPI is expected to have risen 0.1% in November after rising 0.3% in October.

The Commerce Department releases a pair of housing market indicators in the morning as well.

Housing starts are expected to have risen to a 575,000 annual unit rate in November, from a 529,000 unit annual rate in October. Building permits, a measure of builder confidence, is expected to have risen to a 570,000 unit annual rate in November from a 552,000 unit annual rate.

The weekly crude oil inventories report is also due in the morning.

Thursday: The November index of leading economic indicators, from the Conference Board, is due out shortly after the start of trading. LEI is expected to have risen 0.7% after rising 0.3% in October.

The Philadelphia Fed index, a regional read on manufacturing, is expected to have fallen to 16.5 in December from 16.7 in November.

The weekly jobless claims report is also due in the morning, but no estimates were available as of the writing of this story.

The Senate Banking Committee will be voting on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's confirmation.

Package-delivery firm FedEx (FDX, Fortune 500) is due to report results before the start of trading. FedEx is expected to have earned $1.05 versus $1.58 a year ago, according to a consensus of analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters. Last week, the company said it expected to earn $1.10 per share.

After the close Thursday, Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500) is expected to report a profit of 36 cents per share versus 34 cents a year ago.

Friday: Wall Street may also feel the impact of the quadruple options expiration, a quarterly event in which stock index futures and options and individual stock futures and options all expire simultaneously. The process can cause increased volatility in the underlying issues. To top of page

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