In the last few weeks there have been tantalizing signs that the recession may be bottoming, and even President Obama says he sees "glimmers of hope" in the economy, despite an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent.

But this week may offer more concrete evidence, one way or the other, about the direction of the economy. A number of key U.S. based corporations will report their first quarter earnings this week, and the numbers will not only influence the future direction of the stock market, but give policy makers insight into the strength of the economy.

For consumers, this week may determine whether their 401(k) accounts continue to recover or give up most of the gains they've recorded in the market's four week rally. It may also determine whether corporations will continue layoffs or begin to plan for future growth.

On Tuesday, look for earnings reports from CSX Corporation, Johnson and Johnson, and Intel. These three companies represent diverse sectors of the economy, and all three are bellwethers.

CSX is a major U.S. railroad, whose profits depend on other companies transporting raw and finished goods to market. If shipments remain flat or decline further, that's a bad sign for the economy. If shipments increase, then the reverse is true.

Johnson and Johnson has weathered the current recession as well as any company, since it makes products that consumers use on a daily basis. But the company also produces prescription drugs, and if sales in that sector falter, that's a bad sign for the economy. If consumers are cutting back on prescription drug purchases they are likely feeling a lot of economic pressure.

Intel Corp. produces computer chips and its earnings report will provide insight into the corporate economy. An increase in demand for computer chips means computer makers are gearing up for new demand. A disappointing earnings report from Intel, on the other hand, will signal a sluggish business environment in the months ahead.

Friday is also a big day for earnings reports. General Electric will report its earnings then, and could well provide a snapshot of the economy, since GE is made up of so many diverse businesses. Analysts will closely inspect the numbers from GE Capital, for clues on how the financial sector is doing.

Citigroup, which also reports on Friday, will also provide insight into how the battered financial sector is doing. Citi helped fuel the recent Wall Street rally when it reported that it had moved into the black during the first two months of the year. If that trend is borne out in its first quarter earnings report, analysts say it would be a very hopeful sign for the economy and could kick the stock rally into overdrive.

On the other hand, a disappointing earnings report could trigger a significant sell off, with investors concluding that hopeful signs of a recovery were simply premature.