Stocks tick higher ahead of hotly anticipated inflation data

NEW YORK — Stocks are ticking higher today as Wall Street waits for a report to show whether inflation is continuing to cool or perhaps setting the market up for worse pain.

The S&P 500 was 0.5% higher in early trading ahead of Tuesday’s report on inflation at the consumer level across the country. It’s coming off its worst week in nearly two months.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 184 points, or 0.5%, at 34,053, as of 9:05 a.m. Central time, while the Nasdaq composite was 0.7% higher.

High inflation and the Federal Reserve’s response to it with higher interest rates have been at the center of Wall Street’s sharp moves for more than a year. The Fed has aggressively hiked rates to their highest level since the dawn of the Great Recession to drive down the worst inflation in generations. High rates can stamp out inflation, but they do so at the risk of sending the economy into a sharp recession and dragging on investment prices.

Economists expect Tuesday’s report to show inflation slowed to 6.2% in January. That would be down from 6.5% a month before and from a peak of more than 9% in the summer. Perhaps more important than the overall number is what the data show about prices for services, such as haircuts or airfares. Inflation has remained stubbornly high there, when it’s started to come down in other areas.

A worse-than-expected reading would raise worries that the Federal Reserve will stay firmer on rates than expected, which could mean more pain for Wall Street. Cooler-than-expected figures, meanwhile, could fan anew hopes that were rising earlier this year for the Fed to take it easier on rates.

Treasury yields jumped last week after investors pulled their forecasts for rates closer to the Fed’s, which has been saying that it plans to keep rates higher for longer to ensure the job is done on inflation.

Yields were relatively steady today ahead of the inflation report. The yield on the 10-year Treasury, which helps set rates for mortgages and other important loans, fell to 3.71% from 3.75% late Friday. The two-year yield, which tends to move more on expectations for the Fed, dipped to 4.52% from 4.53%.

All the worries about inflation and rates are happening against the backdrop of a decidedly lackluster earnings reporting season. Companies in the S&P 500 are on track to report a nearly 5% drop in earnings for the final three months of 2022, compared with a year earlier, according to FactSet.

By the count of strategists at Credit Suisse, this is shaping up to be the worst earnings reporting season outside of a recession in 24 years.

The bulk of earnings reports have already come in, with big utility companies and retailers among the companies toward the tail of the season. This upcoming week will include reports from Southern Co., Coca-Cola and Kraft Heinz.

Fidelity National Information Services tumbled 14.8% despite reporting slightly stronger profit and revenue for its latest quarter than expected. FIS gave a forecast for 2023 results that fell short of Wall Street’s expectations, and it said it will spin off its Worldpay merchant business after acquiring it in a deal less than four years ago.

On the winning end was Henry Schein, a provider of health care products and services. It rose 3.6% for one of the biggest gains in the S&P 500 after it announced a program to buy back up to $400 million of its stock. Investors like such programs because they put cash directly in the pockets of shareholders.