By Richard Leong
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street is bracing for a wave of economic reports this week, including the August jobs report, which might prove decisive in determining whether the economy is strong enough for the Federal Reserve to dial back its bond purchases in mid-September.
Anxiety about the Fed's possibly reducing its $85 billion monthly stimulus, also known as QE3, has hurt the stock market, which recorded its steepest monthly fall since May 2012.
But the stock market's greater anxiety, which has developed in recent weeks, is that the Fed will press ahead with a reduction in support even as the economy remains fragile. Recent data has failed to provide evidence of the convincing growth the Fed says it wants to see. Until then, stocks will benefit from the cheap money resulting from the Fed's bond purchases.
This week's "data should make or break the September expectations," said Mike O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.
A strong jobs report will likely reinforce the view the Fed will opt to decrease its bond purchases at its September 17-18 meeting, while a weak one would do the opposite, analysts said.
"From a real economy perspective, QE3 has done very little. From a financial markets perspective, it has had a major influence. If it is really not helping the real economy beyond pushing financial assets higher, there is no point in continuing the risk of increasing the balance sheet," said O'Rourke.
For the month of August, the Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 3.1 percent; the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 4.4 percent, and the Nasdaq slipped 1 percent. <.N>
Speculation on the timing of Fed action has triggered a bond market sell-off that sent mortgage rates to two-year highs. The surge in home borrowing costs this summer has shown signs of slowing the housing recovery. Analysts also are watching if the higher rates have discouraged employers from adding workers.
Economists polled by Reuters forecast domestic employers likely hired 180,000 workers in August, more than the 162,000 in July, while the jobless rate likely held steady at 7.4 percent, which is a four-year low.
Deutsche Bank economists said that if the payrolls figure exceeds 190,000 and the unemployment rate falls to 7.3 percent, they expect the Fed will start cutting bond purchases. "August employment would have to meaningfully disappoint for the Fed to back away from the time table presented by Chairman Bernanke in the June post-meeting press conference," they wrote.
Prior to the payrolls data on Friday, traders will face a heavy schedule of economic releases. They include the latest readings on vehicle sales and national factory and service activities.
U.S. financial markets will close on Monday for the Labor Day holiday.
Investors are watching the tense situation between the West and Syria. Signs of a U.S.-led military strike against Syria after chemical weapons were used to kill civilians could hurt the appetite for stocks globally.
Investors' fears eased after U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday opted to seek congressional authorization for military action, a move that was likely to delay any strike for at least nine days.
"There's still uncertainty about whether any action will take place, but a delay will let investors calm down and assess things," said Michael Yoshikami, chief executive at Destination Wealth Management in Walnut Creek, California.
"There was a lot of concern that there would be unilateral military action, because that could have had a major impact on oil prices, which in turn would have impacted GDP and consumer spending - not what we want to see with economic growth still so slow."
Traders had already pared expectations for an imminent strike after the British Parliament voted against military action, though France said it supported punishing the Syrian government for the attack on civilians. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday the chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21 killed more than 1,400 people.
Despite the sharp moves in equities due to the Syrian unrest, "we still expect the market to stop short of a 10 percent decline," said Mike Dueker, head economist for North America at Russell Investments in Seattle.
Light volume in late summer likely exaggerated August's stock decline, analysts said. The uncertainty has also boosted measures of volatility. The CBOE Volatility Index <.VIX> rose above 17 on Friday, a two-month high.
Bonds, in comparison, posted small losses. They were poised to lose 0.54 percent in August, according to Barclays' Aggregate bond index, which tracks U.S. investment-grade debt returns.
While Syria and economic data will be this week's main concerns, other developments, such as President Barack Obama's nominee to succeed Ben Bernanke as Fed chief and another possible showdown between Obama and congressional Republicans over the federal debt, might keep investors on edge, analysts said.
"There is no doubt that September is teed up for a tsunami of data coming at us and headlines coming at us," said David Lyon, investment specialist at JP Morgan Private Bank in San Francisco, which manages $910 billion in assets.
"So the market will look at September and really start to find its footing based on some of the economic data that comes out as well as clarity around some of these policy decisions at the central bank level or the geopolitical level," he said
History might complicate that view.
September has traditionally been the worst month for stocks, with an average 0.6 percent decline in the S&P 500 index over the past 62 years, although the benchmark index rose 2.4 percent last September.
This September marks a milestone - the five-year anniversary of the global credit meltdown during which Wall Street witnessed the downfall of Lehman Brothers, the sale of Merrill Lynch, and the near-demise of insurance giant AIG.
In that turbulent month, September 2008, the market tumbled 9.1 percent.
(Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak and Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Kenneth Barry and Leslie Adler)