Sell in May ... And Stay Away?

Stocks suffered their worst decline of the year Friday, after a bleak assessment of the U.S. economy. Only 69,000 jobs were created last month, and a manufacturing report showed U.S. factories producing at less-than-stellar rates.

The dour news sent the Dow Industrials down 275 points, and the blue chips are now negative for the year.  There's no relief this morning, either, as futures are set to open lower.

While it’s a relatively light week for economic data, with April factory orders due out later this morning and ISM non-manufacturing data due tomorrow, investors will be paying particularly close attention to testimony Thursday by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke before Congress on his outlook for the economy.

Also on Wednesday and Thursday, we hear from the European Central Bank and the Bank of England on interest rates. Investors will want to know whether Europe’s central banks will ease their monetary policy to counter the weakening economy.

Stephen Guilfoyle, a U.S. economist with Meridian Equity Partners, notes, “While I have no doubt that the BOE will ease, the ECB, hard to believe as it is, is a harder nut to crack.  Obvious as the day is long, that the ECB needs to act in aggressive fashion, betting the farm on it is another thing.”

Meantime, oil prices continue their downward spiral, flirting with $81 a barrel at one point Monday morning. That’s generating some relief at the gas pump and fueling more people to buy new cars and trucks.

May auto sales came in strong, with General Motors (NYSE:GM) reporting monthly sales rising 11% from last year, while Ford’s (NYSE:F) rose by 13% and Chrysler’s spiked 30%.

But the gains extend beyond Detroit. Toyota is running at fast speed once again, and smaller competitors Volkswagen, Hyundai, and Nissan are quickly gaining market share, too.

That may be a boon for consumers; it’s expected that the smaller players will use added deals and incentives to get more people to buy their cars and trucks, and increase their market share in the process.