By Caroline Valetkevitch
NEW YORK (Reuters) - With a June Federal Reserve interest rate hike likely off the table following Friday's dismal jobs data, U.S. equity investors may shift their focus again to whether the economy is losing too much steam to allow stocks to advance.
Investors will comb economic data over the next few weeks to see if the weak payrolls report reflected a wider trend in the U.S. economy or was an outlier. A first hint of the central bank's view of that could come Monday with a speech on the economic outlook by Fed Chair Janet Yellen.
The fresh economic worries could help keep the market mired below record highs reached in May 2015, even though the Standard & Poor's 500 index notched a third straight months of gains this May and most sectors are up since the start of the year.
"The broader question is whether the economy is gaining the kind of momentum and traction that we need for a market that has been looking toward new highs," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.
"No one is out to suggest the economy is doing a major turnaround because of this number, but we now need to see a clutch of data that suggests that this is a one-off," she said.
It may take a few weeks to get a better picture of the economic outlook, with the economic and earnings calendars light for next week. The Fed meets the following week, which will also bring data on retail sales and producer prices.
Wall Street's top banks now unanimously expect the Fed to leave interest rates unchanged this month, a Reuters poll showed on Friday.
While investors and company executives have worried that higher rates will dampen spending, now a weak economy is considered a bigger risk for the market.
S&P 500 earnings, which fell 5 percent in the first quarter from a year ago in their third straight quarterly decline, are still expected to pick up in the second half of the year.
"I'm starting to get worried that the third- and fourth-quarter numbers are not going to come to fruition, said Daniel Morgan, senior portfolio manager at Synovus Trust Company in Atlanta. "How to do you substantiate the market where it is, based on current multiples?"
The S&P 500 is trading at 17.1 times forward earnings, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Speculation over the outcome of Britain's pending vote on remaining in the European Union could also rattle the resolve of stock investors.
The British electorate's vote on the change, which many investors say would be a negative for global markets, comes a week after the Fed's June policy meeting and adds to the likelihood the U.S. central bank will leave rates unchanged in June.
While signs of slower growth are a negative overall for the market, defensive sectors, along with dividend-paying stocks, could continue to benefit from increased investor caution. Utilities and telecommunications both have double-digits gains for the year so far.
(Reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Nick Zieminski)