Week Ahead: Key Jobs Report, Earnings and Data

Investors will be looking for continued improvement in the U.S. labor market when the government’s January jobs report is released on Friday. Earnings and monthly auto sales will also garner attention.

The unemployment rate has fallen in each of the past two months. It now stands at 8.5%, the lowest since February of 2009 at the height of the recent financial crisis.

Three months of declines in the number of unemployed workers could indicate traction in the economic recovery. Economists, however, are forecasting that the jobless rate is likely to bump slightly higher or stay the same.

Skeptics of the lower numbers say the recent decline has been caused by thousands of Americans who have simply stopped looking for work altogether.

Among the high-profile companies releasing earnings next week are online retailer Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) and overnight delivery service United Parcel Service (NYSE:UPS). Both companies are considered bellwethers for the larger economy.

Also due next week are quarterly earnings from oil giant Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) and drug maker Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE).

January auto sales are out on Wednesday and analysts believe the numbers will be up across the board from a year ago. Analysts at Edmunds.com believe Chrysler Group, left for dead just two years ago, could be the leader of the pack in terms of sales growth.

Retail sales for January are also due next week. The decline in the unemployment rate has contributed to a jump in consumer sentiment, but analysts believe consumers are still reluctant to spend big on discretionary items.

Eight new deals are scheduled for next week from companies completing initial public offerings, a good start for February after a slow January that saw only three new publicly traded stocks launched. Among the companies preparing for IPOs are oil driller Dynamic Offshore Resources and biopharmaceutical company Merrimack Pharmaceuticals. Facebook is also reportedly set to file for its IPO sometime next week.

Other economic reports due next week include the December personal income and consumer spending report and the Institute for Supply Management factory report due out Wednesday. The ISM’s non-factory report is due on Friday.