U.S. stocks could sputter next week as volumes dry up in holiday-shortened trading and with a slew of economic reports likely to illustrate the recovery is still fragile.
Investors will also get a glimpse of how holiday shopping could shape up with Black Friday, which traditionally marks the start of the season as retailers slash prices to tempt shoppers. It will be difficult for the economic recovery to make much headway without a pick-up in consumer spending as it accounts for two-thirds of the economy.
A raft of data is squeezed into the first half of the week, shortened by Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday. The delicate nature of the recovery has analysts split on whether the economy will advance from here or still faces another leg down.
The debate has plagued the rally throughout its run but now that the S&P 500 is up more than 60 percent from March's 12-year lows, investors are more wary of taking risks. With just six trading weeks left in the year, market watchers are keen to hold onto profits.
"There's simply more risk where we are," said Lawrence Creatura, equity market strategist and portfolio manager at Federated Clover Capital Advisors, in Rochester, New York.
"We're at a higher altitude and even though in some ways it doesn't feel like it, it's less safe now than it was in March."
Data has largely shown an economy that is recovering slowly but is still weak, particularly in areas like employment. Reports include home sales, consumer confidence, durable goods and the second reading of gross domestic product.
As well, the Federal Open Market Committee will release the minutes from November's rate-setting meeting. Investors will be looking for insight as to how the central bank will eventually start to remove its extraordinary stimulus measures and its view on the health of the economy.
The Dow and S&P 500 made 13-month highs this week before easing off, and recent sessions suggest the market is struggling to justify more gains.
For the week, the Dow rose 0.5 percent, the S&P 500 fell 0.2 percent and the Nasdaq shed 1 percent. The S&P failed to hold above the key 1,100 level and will continue to face resistance there.
Volume is expected to be light throughout the week with U.S. markets closed on Thursday for Thanksgiving and shutting early on Friday. Low volume can make stocks more volatile as fewer participants make it easier to move prices.
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, will be watched closely with analysts anxious for signs consumers will be opening up their wallets.
The phrase Black Friday is used by retailers to refer to the start of the holiday period when their business moves into the black, or turns a profit.
Early data on shopper traffic and anecdotal evidence will give the first snapshot of the day's performance and a clearer picture will emerge the following week when stores report November retail sales.
"The American consumer historically will continue to spend until there are physically no dollars in their pockets," said Creatura.
"So the question is are there dollars in their pockets? We'll know after Black Friday."
Recent statements from retailers as they reported quarterly earnings have signaled Wall Street shouldn't get too carried away with their expectations for the holiday season. Discount retailers Target Corp (TGT.N) and Wal-Mart (WMT.N) both forecast holiday quarter profit that could miss expectations.
The two rivals have already announced deep discounts for the holidays.
"It is very, very hair-raising for retailers because this year hasn't been wonderful and make or break is right upon us," said Cummins Catherwood, managing director at Boenning and Scattergood, in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
"The question to me is how long can you keep discounting the stuff you used to sell at whole retail prices and still earn a living?"
Third quarter preliminary gross domestic product is expected to come in at 2.9 percent, revised down from an advance reading of 3.5 percent last month, according to Reuters data. Analysts have been scaling back expectations for economic growth after data last week showed a larger-than-expected trade deficit.
Weekly initial claims for jobless benefits will be released on Wednesday, a day earlier than usual. Analysts expect first time claims to dip slightly to 500,000.
"The direction of the economic data continues to be positive, but investors face a two steps forward, one step back scenario," said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at RDM Financial, in Westport, Connecticut.
Likewise, the FOMC minutes will be released on Tuesday, a day earlier than previously scheduled. Other data includes new and existing home sales, consumer confidence for November and durable goods for October. See