For the first time in the history of the U.S. Federal Reserve, its chairman will meet with reporters next week to answer questions on Fed policy. The press conference will occur following the regular meeting Tuesday and Wednesday of the Federal Open Market Committee, at which no big changes are expected.

Tons of earnings reports are due next week from companies across a wide spectrum of the economic landscape, and lots of economic data as well, notably first quarter GDP.

Rather than name them all – a total of 180 companies from the S&P 500 are expected to report -- here’s a few highlights of the biggest and most watched.

Monday: Ameriprise Financial (AMP); Kimberly Clark (KMB), and Netflix (NFLX).

Mail order and online streaming movie rental company Netflix was the biggest gainer of 2010 so investors will be looking to see if it can maintain its momentum as it moves its operations increasingly onto the Web.

Tuesday: Aetna (AET), BristolMyersSquibb (BMY), Colgate Palmolive (CL) , Deutsche Bank (DB), Dow Chemical (DOW), Exxon Mobile (XOM), Ford (F), International Paper (IP), Mack Cali Realty (CLI), Microsoft (MSFT), OfficeMax (OMX), Pepsico (PEP), Raytheon (RTN), Safeway (SWY), Sanofi Aventis (SNY), Sprint Nextel (S), Proctor and Gamble (PG), Time Warner Cable (TWX), Tyco International (TYC), and Waste Management (WM).

Dow Chemical, Ford and Safeway offer a glimpse into a diverse cross-section of the American economy.

Wednesday: 3M (MMM) Amazon.com (AMZN), Coca Cola (KO), Delphi Financial (DFG), Lockheed Martin (LMT), Office Depot (ODP), UPS (UPS), United States Steel (X), US Airways (LCG), and Valero Energy (VLO).

Amazon and Coca Cola depend on robust consumer spending.

Thursday: Aflac (AFL), Allstate (ALL), Boeing (BA), ConocoPhillips (COP), eBay (EBAY), General Dynamics (GD), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Norfolk Southern (NSC), Northrop Grumman (NOC), Starbucks (SBUX).

ConocoPhillips is one of a handful of energy companies reporting this week as fuel prices have soared based on fears of shortages of crude oil due to unrest in the Middle East.

Friday: Caterpillar (CAT), Chevron (CVX), ITT (ITT) Merck & Co. (MRK), and Goodyear Tire and Rubber (GT).  

Large machinery maker Caterpillar is a good bellwether for the health of global development.

The preliminary estimate of first-quarter GDP is due Thursday and the growth numbers don’t look good. Analysts believe a number of economic factors, including a stagnant real estate market, will produce weaker numbers than the previous two quarters. Things may perk up in the second quarter.

Housing data will also be closely watched next week for signs that warmer weather has enticed buyers back into the market. New homes sales data are out Monday, and the Case-Schiller Home Price index is out Tuesday. Analysts are hopeful but not optimistic that that beleaguered sector is picking up momentum.

Two indexes of consumer confidence are also out next week: the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index is set for Tuesday, and the final Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index for Friday.

Follow Dunstan Prial on Twitter @DunstanPrial