Evidence is piling up that the economic recovery has lost some of its vigor. That has deflated a stock market rally and pushed indexes down for five straight weeks, the longest losing streak since mid-2008.
So, what's next? Don't hold out hope for more help from the government, analysts say. Another round of stimulus spending isn't in the cards, the Fed has already slashed interest rates near zero and has said it will end its bond-buying program on schedule at the end of this month.
With high gas prices crimping consumer spending and companies still reluctant to hire, investors may have to settle for a stock market and an economic recovery that plod slowly along.
"The market is clearly getting used to uneven economic data," says Jeff Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial. "We've moved from a recovery phase to a more modest pace of economic growth."
A weak employment report spurred another stock sell-off Friday, two days after the Dow Jones industrial average had its worst drop in nearly a year. The Dow lost 97.29 points, or 0.8 percent, to close at 12,151.26.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 12.78, or 1 percent, to 1,300.16. The Nasdaq composite fell 40.53, or 1.5 percent, to 2,732.78.
Each index lost 2.3 percent for the week. The last time there was a longer decline in the S&P 500, the market's most widely used benchmark, occurred during the six weeks ending July 11, 2008, before the worst days of the financial crisis.
Despite the market's recent slump, analysts say there are still plenty of bright spots in the economy including business spending and bank lending. The market could still manage to struggle higher this year, Kleintop says, but the climb from here will likely be a long and slow. Picture a jagged valley of dips and steps, not a straight shot up or down.
Investors will probably have to scale back their expectations for profits, much as economists from JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and other banks recently lowered their estimates for economic growth. Kleintop expects to see corporations cut their earnings estimates in the coming weeks. The news is sure to push their stocks lower. "There will be more days like (Friday)," Kleintop says.
Stocks had a strong start to the year, hitting their highest levels in nearly three years in late April. But the market has been sputtering since then as troubling signs emerged about the economy. Investors probably overreacted to strong corporate earnings at the start of the year, said Andrew Wilkinson, senior market analyst with Interactive Brokers.
"I think what investors need to do is get accustomed to a more sluggish pace of growth," Wilkinson says.
Employers added only 54,000 new workers in May, the fewest in eight months and well below what analysts were expecting, the Labor Department reported. Private companies hired the fewest new workers in nearly a year. The unemployment rate inched up to 9.1 percent from 9 percent.
Stocks fell sharply after the opening of trading but recovered some ground after a report from the Institute for Supply Management came out at midmorning. The group of purchasing executives said the economy's service sector grew in May for an 18th straight month. The pace of growth picked up slightly from the ISM report April, which was the worst in eight months.
Later in the morning European officials said Greece would receive the next installment of its emergency loan package, lifting some uncertainty about Greece's fiscal crisis. European stocks and the euro rose after the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund gave Greece more breathing room as it tries to service its debts.
The Labor Department's closely-watched monthly jobs report reinforced earlier signals that the U.S. economy is slowing. High gas and food prices have cut into consumer spending and the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan have hurt U.S. manufacturers by slowing down supplies of industrial parts.
The Dow plunged 280 points Wednesday, its worst drop in nearly a year, on a weak payrolls report from ADP and the biggest decline in a key manufacturing index since 1984. That combined with other weak readings on the economy prompted analysts to lower their projections for growth in 2011.
"We are clearly seeing a significant slowdown in economic activity, and a lot of that has to do with the effect of higher energy prices and the disruption from Japan," says David Kelly, chief market strategist with J.P. Morgan Funds.
Rising pessimism about the economy's health have some investors hoping the Federal Reserve will drum up another rescue package. The Fed's current $600 billion bond-buying effort has been credited with fuelling months of gains in the stock market since last August. That program, dubbed QE 2, ends this month. So will signs of sagging economic growth spur a QE 3?
Most economists doubt it.
"QE 3 isn't on the table," says Anthony Chan, chief economist at J.P. Morgan's private wealth unit. The economy isn't in as bad shape as it was last summer when the Fed hatched its bond-buying plan, Chan says. At the time, many worried about a double-dip recession, and weak inflation had the Fed fearing a spiral of falling prices known as deflation, a scourge of the Great Depression.
Now, rising gas prices have pinched consumer spending and have been blamed for weaker retail sales. The consumer price index has climbed 3.2 percent over the past year.
Newell Rubbermaid Inc. shares fell 12 percent after the company lowered its outlook for sales and earnings in 2011. Large retailers that sell the company's products are lowering their expectations for economic growth this year.
"Persistent softness in the U.S. economy and increased inflationary pressure have caused us to revise our outlook for the balance of the year," President and CEO Mark Ketchum said in a statement. "Our revised expectations are lower than they were just a short while ago."
More than two stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading volume was 3.6 billion shares.
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