OVERNIGHT MONEY: All eyes on the milestone-seeking stock market

And if that wasn't enough drama for you, look no further than the NASDAQ, which is clawing its way toward its own milestone. 

The tech-heavy index has yet to eclipse the 3,000 point margin — heights that also haven't been seen since the financial crisis — but it has come tantalizingly close. On Tuesday, it stretched to within two points before shrinking back, and has since danced around just single digits below it.

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If investors can steel themselves and push both indexes above those levels tomorrow, it could serve as another indication that confidence is growing in this long-running economic recovery of ours.

Congress is expected to be quiet on Friday and there aren't any economic indicators to create major fluctuations — although world events could step in to dash hopes. 

The continued improvement also bolsters President Obama’s argument that the economy is improving. He may need a strong stock market to propel him to a victory in November, especially if labor market stagnates. 

Although the stock market has been feeding off the improving employment pictures, those gains could be short-lived if employers can't maintain a fast enough pace of hiring to bring down unemployment. 

Most economists still expect the jobless rate to be around 8 percent at the end of the year, putting Obama into new electoral territory — no president has been reelected with an unemployment rate above 8 percent since Franklin Roosevelt.

So, a strong stock market could provide the assist that Obama needs to score a victory. 


WHAT ELSE TO WATCH FOR

Consumer protections: Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and Martin Gruenberg, acting chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, will speak on Friday at the George Washington University Center for Law on investor and consumer protections in the changing financial marketplace. 


BREAKING THURSDAY

Retail sales improve: Consumer spending boosted sales at many stores, offering the latest sign that shoppers are feeling more confident in the economy.

As merchants reported their monthly sales figures Thursday, a diverse group including Target and Macy's reported sales gains that exceeded Wall Street estimates. The figures are considered an indicator of a retailer's health. 

How low can you go?: The average rate on the 30-year mortgage edged down this week to hover again above record lows. Freddie Mac said Thursday that the rate on the 30-year home loan fell to 3.90 percent from 3.95 percent the previous week. That's slightly above the 3.87 percent average rate hit two weeks ago, which was the lowest since long-term mortgages began in the 1950s.

Mixture of results: A variety of economic indicators released Thursday reflect the fragility of the economic recovery. 

Steady declines in applications for unemployment aid are pointing to another strong month of hiring in February. But manufacturing growth slowed and construction spending dipped, while auto sales climbed.


LOOSE CHANGE 

The Big Four: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sat down with a quarter of top congressional tax writers — Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — on Thursday to discuss overhauling a corporate tax code that everyone seems to think needs a tune-up.

The meeting follows the administration's release of its corporate tax reform framework last week, which Geithner said he hoped would be a springboard for negotiations on the issue. But as expected, the get-together does not appear to have produced any breakthroughs — not many Washington observers with a pulse expect Congress to be able to pull off tax reform this year. 

"Both sides pushed Geithner for more details, but don't expect anything forthcoming," one congressional aide told The Hill.

Outlook hazy: He predicted the tech-stock collapse. He foresaw the housing bust. So naturally, everyone wants to know what Robert Shiller thinks of today's stock prices, now perched at a four-year high. Or about the direction of home prices.

Keep your hopes in check. Shiller is disinclined these days to offer specific predictions about the direction of stocks, home prices or any other asset whose prices can surge or plunge before we can fully grasp what's going on.


WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED

— Boehner: GOP sour on short-term highway bill
— Obama asks Congress to vote down oil industry tax breaks
— Democrat: Letting Bush tax rates expire could stop sequestered cuts
Santorum fends off conservative critics of tax plan
Durbin on new bank fees: 'Here we go again'
— Budget Committee GOP divided on August debt deal
Manufacturing grows at a slower rate
Bernanke takes GOP heat over housing paper
— Weekly unemployment claims hit four-year low

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