By Rodrigo Campos
NEW YORK (Reuters) - January has turned out to be strong for stocks with just two trading days to go. If you're afraid to miss the ride, there's still time to jump in. You just might want to wear a neck brace.
The new year lured buyers into growth-related sectors, the ones that were more beaten down last year. The economy is getting better, but not dramatically. Earnings are beating expectations, but at a lower rate than in recent quarters. Nothing too bad is coming out of Europe's debt crisis -- and nothing good, either -- at least not yet.
"No one item is a major positive, but collectively, it's been enough to tilt it towards net buying," said John Schlitz, chief market technician at Instinet in New York.
Still, relatively weak volume and a six-month high hit last week make some doubt that the gains are sustainable.
But then there's the golden cross.
Many market skeptics take notice when this technical indicator, a holy grail of sorts for many technicians, shows up on the horizon.
As early as Monday, the rising 50-day moving average of the S&P 500 could tick above its rising 200-day moving average. This occurrence -- known as a golden cross -- means the medium-term momentum is increasingly bullish. You have a good chance of making money in the next six months if you put it to work in large-cap stocks.
In the last 50 years, according to data compiled by Birinyi Associates, a golden cross on the S&P 500 has augured further gains six months ahead in eight out of 10 times. The average gain has been 6.6 percent.
That means the benchmark is on solid footing to not only hold onto the 14 percent advance over the last nine weeks, but to flirt with 1,400, a level it has not hit since mid-2008.
The gains, as expected, would not be in a straight line. But any weakness could be used by long-term investors as buying opportunities.
"The cross is an intermediate bullish event," Schlitz said. "You have to interpret it as constructive, but I caution people to take a bullish stance, if they have a short-term horizon."
GREECE, U.S. PAYROLLS AND MOMENTUM
Less than halfway into the earnings season and with Greek debt talks over the weekend, payrolls data this week and the S&P 500 near its highest since July, there is plenty of room for something to go wrong. If that happens, the market could easily give back some of its recent advance.
But the benchmark's recent rally and momentum shift allow for a pullback before the technical picture deteriorates.
"We bounced off 1,325, which is resistance. We're testing 1,310, which should be support. We are stuck in that range," said Ken Polcari, managing director at ICAP Equities in New York.
"If over the weekend, Greece comes out with another big nothing, then you will see further weakness (this) week," he said. "A 1 (percent) or 2 percent pullback isn't out of the question or out of line."
On Friday, the S&P 500 <.INX> and the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> closed their fourth consecutive week of gains, while the Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dipped and capped three weeks of gains. For the day, the Dow dropped 74.17 points, or 0.58 percent, to close at 12,660.46. The S&P 500 fell 2.10 points, or 0.16 percent, to 1,316.33. But the Nasdaq gained 11.27 points, or 0.40 percent, to end at 2,816.55.
For the week, the Dow slipped 0.47 percent, while the S&P 500 inched up 0.07 percent and the Nasdaq jumped 1.07 percent.
A DATA-PACKED EARNINGS WEEK
This week is filled with heavy-hitting data on the housing, manufacturing and employment sectors.
Personal income and consumption on Monday will be followed by the S&P/Case-Shiller home prices index, consumer confidence and the Chicago PMI -- all on Tuesday.
Wednesday will bring the Institute for Supply Management index on U.S. manufacturing and the first of three key readings on the labor market -- namely, the ADP private-sector employment report. Jobless claims on Thursday will give way on Friday to the U.S. government's non-farm payrolls report. The forecast calls for a net gain of 150,000 jobs in January, according to economists polled by Reuters.
On the earnings front, it will be another hectic week with almost a fifth of the S&P 500 components posting quarterly results. Exxon Mobil
With almost 200 companies' reports in so far, about 59 percent have beaten earnings expectations -- down from about 70 percent in recent quarters.
(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak and Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Jan Paschal)