By Rodrigo Campos
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street has been running in circles for the past two months, and the pattern may continue despite the upcoming start of the earnings season.
Quarterly report cards from blue-chips Alcoa and JPMorgan next week could fade into the background as traders jockey for position before key data from China and more central bank headlines next week.
After three major central banks eased monetary policy this week, investors will comb through the minutes of the latest Federal Reserve policy meeting, which will be released on Wednesday, to see what officials said about a further round of asset purchases.
U.S. stocks face headwinds from a slowing global economy. Europe's debt crisis has drawn much of the attention, but little clarity has emerged about how the euro zone's debt and banking problems will be fixed despite numerous meetings.
The uncertainty has left the market in the hands of traders, who look for opportunities for quick returns, while investors, who are in the market for the long haul, watch from the sidelines.
The S&P 500 flirted with going negative for the year shortly before posting its best week since December. The benchmark index is less than 0.1 percent above where it was two months ago.
"Traders are happy going in and out of the market within a range, but for the average investor it's a market in which the path is still unclear," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.
On Friday, the S&P 500 closed down 0.55 percent for the week. The index has posted four weeks of gains and four of losses in the last eight.
CENTRAL BANKS TO THE RESCUE?
Weak U.S. labor market data on Friday raised the chances in favor of the Fed launching a new round of monetary stimulus to boost growth, according to a Reuters poll. <ID:N9E8GO01T>
The Fed's minutes midweek will be followed Thursday by the Japanese central bank's views on the health of its economy after a two-day meeting.
"If we do see additional asset purchases from the Bank of Japan that would depreciate the yen and would be a short-term positive for global equities," said Brian Jacobsen, chief portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.
The recent central bank actions are seen as precautionary moves as the global economy stalls. Next week's gross domestic product data out of China will help give the market important clues about the world's second-biggest economy.
"Some of the negative news is built in, and I'm anticipating a positive surprise coming out of China," Jacobsen said.
Economists expect China to report year-on-year GDP growth of 7.6 percent, compared to an 8.1 percent yearly gain in the first quarter.
Other Chinese data next week include inflation, loan growth, trade balance and retail sales.
Europe remains on traders' minds despite an agreement last week that opens the door for troubled banks to receive rescue funds. However, Italian and Spanish borrowing costs have resumed their rise in a bearish sign for markets.
Testimony by ECB President Mario Draghi to Europe's parliament on Monday will be followed by a meeting of euro zone finance ministers.
EARNINGS, OUTLOOKS ... AND A BIG TRADING LOSS
Aluminum company Alcoa <AA.N> reports second-quarter results on Monday. Alcoa surprised Wall Street last quarter with a positive outlook, but the global slowdown could make it harder for the aluminum maker to keep its bullish stance.
JPMorgan Chase & Co <JPM.N> will also report earnings next week, with investors eager to know how big the bank's losses will be following a botched trade. The initial estimated loss at the bank was $2 billion but later reports indicated it could balloon to more than four times that.
"The idea is that analysts have been marking down not only earnings estimates but revenue estimates, and the reason is because of weakness in Europe, which is spilling over to weakness in global operations for many companies," said Brian Gendreau, market strategist with Cetera Financial Group in Gainesville, Florida.
The U.S. economic calendar for next week includes import prices and trade, plus producer prices and the preliminary reading on July consumer sentiment from the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan surveys.
(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos, additional reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Kenneth Barry)