U.S. stock prices have fluctuated wildly this week, falling sharply Monday, then rebounding Tuesday - only to open lower before climbing again on Wednesday. Analysts say the price swings are likely to continue. Despite some positive earnings reports and signs of improving stability, some investors worry American consumers are not doing enough to lift the U.S. economy out of recession.
Stock prices continue to zigzag on Wall Street, as investors swing back and forth between optimism and despair. Although experts say the U.S. economy is starting to stabilize, for some Americans, the world's largest economy often boils down to a price tag.
Arianna may be too young to understand economics but she's learning a lot on this shopping trip with mom.
The National Retail Federation says back to school sales are down nearly 8 percent - meaning, the average family will spend $46 less than they did last year.
Economist Diane Swonk says that's one reason why investors are so worried. "We're still running at confidence levels that are consistent with the worst of the recessions of the early 1980's. Consumer spending just isn't there," Swonk said.
Consumer spending drives the U.S. economy.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com says when consumer confidence declines, investors take notice. "For 25 years really, going back to the early 80s, the US consumer has powered growth here in the United States and really globally," Zandi says, "It's powered growth everywhere across the globe. Consumers just aren't going to be able to do that going forward."
Zandi says that's because many lower and middle income Americans feel insecure about their jobs and some are finding it harder to borrow. Zandi says even higher income Americans are not feeling as wealthy as they used to.
"So I think the US consumer will do their part, spend just enough that we get growth and ride a recession but I don't think the U.S. consumer can lead the way. We're going to have to see consumers in the rest of the world, particularly in emerging economies step into that void and power the global economy," he said.
Complicating the recovery: unemployment and the housing crisis. Nearly a quarter million jobs disappeared last month and home foreclosures are at record highs. Even though, investment strategist Liz Ann Sonders says technically - the recession is over.
"We've had three consecutive months of rising leading indicators. That's an expansion signal for a lot of economists to say, recession is over. We're now in recovery mode," Sonders states.
But the crisis is far from over. The Treasury Department says lending at U.S. banks that received bailout money declined for a fifth straight month. And unemployment is expected to reach double digits by next year.
With the free-wheeling days of easy credit and unbridled spending now just a memory, economists say the recovery is likely to be slow and gradual. That means the roller coaster on Wall Street continues.