By Lewis Krauskopf
NEW YORK (Reuters) - With the S&P 500 again coming close to a record this week before falling back, investors will turn next week to a full slate of economic data and a Federal Reserve meeting in hope of fresh reasons whether to drive stocks to new highs.
The benchmark large-cap index flirted with the current record when a rally to start the week brought it to its highest in about 11 months. But the run fizzled on Thursday and Friday, making it the latest time the index has climbed above 2,100 before falling back from the May 21, 2015 closing record of 2,130.82.
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"Equities are having a difficult time finding a rationale to punch through to a new high," said Peter Kenny, senior market strategist at Global Markets Advisory Group in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.
Next week brings the release of important U.S. economic data, including retail sales and inflation.
"We need to see something consistently good or bad to move the markets in a direction," said Peter Costa, president of Empire Executions. "Right now we haven’t got that."
With the S&P 500 closing south of 2,100 this week after touching 2,120 earlier, Katie Stockton, chief technical strategist at BTIG in New York, sees the move as a failed attempt of a breakout that is setting the index for further declines.
“Tested twice, three times, makes it more obvious to be a strong resistance level,” Stockton said. “There’s pent-up selling pressure there.”
After a poor start to the year, the S&P 500 has rallied more than 15 percent since mid February, helped by a rebound in oil prices to over $50 a barrel.
On Friday, the S&P ended within about 35 points of the record. But even if the index eclipses the record next week, not everyone is viewing it as an indication that stocks are poised to then shoot higher.
"It’s a reassuring sign, but not a bullish green flag that means we’re going on to major gains in the short term," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank in Cleveland.
Investors remain sharply focused on when the Fed will next raise interest rates, although they are discounting any chance that the U.S. central bank will act next week.
According to the CME Fedwatch website, traders see only a 2 percent likelihood the Fed will raise rates on Wednesday, and 21 percent chance it will do so at its July meeting. Expectations fell significantly after a dismal employment report earlier this month set off fresh concerns about the economy's strength.
Retail sales "will give us a little bit more insight into just how much consumers are pulling back, if they are, or whether that employment number was more an aberration in the trend and we still have pretty solid results to keep us moving forward," McCain said.
Britain's referendum on whether to stay in the European Union could increasingly fray investor nerves as the June 23 vote nears.
The Brexit vote, along with renewed growth concerns for the United States and China, are “throwing a wet blanket on optimism,” according to Chad Morganlander, portfolio manager at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co in Florham Park, New Jersey.
“We are recommending investors be underweight equity risk at this point,” Morganlander said.
(Additional reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Nick Zieminski)