The stock market will have a lot to chew on next week.
Job creation for April was disappointing _ just 115,000, the fewest since October, the government said Friday. After three months that averaged about 250,000, the March and April figures have economists worried.
On the bright side, what investors call earnings season is almost over, and it was better than just about anyone hoped: 403 companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 have reported first-quarter earnings, and 72 percent have beaten Wall Street estimates.
In Europe, France holds an election Sunday, and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande holds a narrow lead in polls. If he wins, it will throw into question whether France sticks to government budget-cutting to fight the European debt crisis.
The Associated Press asked three market experts to weigh in on these three topics and what they mean for the market in the weeks ahead. They are:
_ Joseph Tanious, Global Market Strategist, JPMorgan Funds.
_ Phil Orlando, chief equity strategist at Federated Investors, which manages a suite of mutual funds.
_ Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist for the brokerage BTIG in New York.
Here's what they had to say:
ON THE JOBS REPORT
"The jobs report reinforced our view that the labor market is healing, but at a painfully slow pace. ... We are continuing to see job gains, but there's no doubt it's been slowing down."
Still, he said, "stock investors are best served realizing that the U.S. economy is healing ... There's a big difference between a weak economy that's continuing to deteriorate and a weak economy that's slowly improving."
While the jobs numbers were disappointing, "we have to remember that there were several distorted seasonal factors that hurt hiring last month, starting with the unusual warm weather January through March this year and an earlier Easter than usual."
Coming after a weak report in March, the April figures look like the start of a worrisome trend. "One month can be weather-related, two months of weaker than expected job growth is dangerously close to a trend," Greenhaus said in a note to clients. "Weak job growth and weak income growth is most unwelcome especially at a time when so many are banking on the exact opposite."
"We're having an exceptional earnings season in the sense that 60 to 70 percent of companies are exceeding analysts' estimates on both earnings and revenue. That's a net positive, and that trend is up from what we saw over the previous two quarters."
"However, if you remove yourself from the day-to-day, the trend we're seeing is that earnings growth is continuing to decelerate, which is expected in a maturing profit cycle."
"The stated expectations for earnings in the first quarter were that revenue and income would break even. The thinking was that the economy was slowing and margins had peaked. But we've had a much better earnings season, which reflects the strength of corporate America. The outlook is cautious since we don't know how the economy will fare."
Companies have been reporting stronger first-quarter earnings over the past month but it's been little help to the stock market. That was to be expected following the S&P 500 index's 12 percent rally in the first three months of the year.
"The fact that companies beat earnings expectations isn't news. That happens every quarter. This time, expectations got so low there was no way they couldn't get beaten."
"The crisis in Europe is far from over. Due to the austerity that many of these countries are implementing, we continue to believe that Europe is going to be experiencing a mild recession this year. ... You have to wonder when this popular uprising of anti-austerity feeling is going to transfer into public office."
"Markets never move in a linear fashion. There are a lot of headlines out there and a lot of risks that are likely to lead to increased volatility throughout the year."
"The recurring theme in these upcoming elections is that they need to rethink policy in Europe about how to deal with the euro zone debt crisis. ... They need to figure out a way to stimulate private economic growth to offset the drag from imposed government austerity."
In France, the Socialist Hollande stands a good chance of beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been at the forefront of efforts to avoid a collapse of the region's shared currency along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"How you campaign and how you govern are always two different things. So what policies (Hollande) will pursue are unknown. Of course, financial markets prefer the known to the unknown."