For a while, a slowdown has a "this can't be happening" feeling to it because it's the culmination of small shop layoffs and consumers backing away from spending after a fairly boisterous holiday season. That kind of slowdown doesn't show up in data for a while.
Then there's the sneaking suspicion the slowdown is going to trim someone's cash flow and, sure enough, stocks are struggling. The blue chip Dow Jones industrial average in New York started the year at 12,217 points and closed above 13,000 for the first time in four years on Feb. 28. That's a fairly nifty headline but a gain of less than 800 points in two months is not breaking any speed records.
On Friday, the Dow was clinging to 13,000. And stocks in Europe and Asia were lower Monday on fears of slower growth in China and ongoing financial fears in Europe.
In an election year, this is peculiar stuff. If cutting spending is the mantra of the moment in Washington, in an election year, they still hand out the checks -- they just tell everybody "You're the exception."
As it did in 2011, it will fall to the U.S. Federal Reserve to create a stimulus package that will be, essentially, the federal government blowing on the embers of the economy. On Capitol Hill, gridlock is not just slang for standing still; it's the definition of animosity overcoming common sense. A politician saying, "I'm not giving them the satisfaction" is gridlock personified.
Corporate reports have been supporting stocks for the past week, as the word "resilient," begins to fade from the landscape.
"Resilient" is a word of condescension, as in, "Who would have thought those consumers would keep spending even with unemployment at this rate? They sure are resilient."
The talk of a recovery in the housing market was linked quickly to the tumbling unemployment rate, which stood above 9 percent in August and has since come down to 8.2 percent. The fine print suggested that more than 25 percent of the falling unemployment rate was attributed to people dropping out of the workforce -- people giving up on finding a job.
In some regions, the foreclosure process was still jammed up by a legal twist. The limited supply of foreclosed-on homes was only temporary. In addition, firms have begun buying homes by the hundreds to convert into rental units. There is some value in that -- but it does not mean consumer credit has returned.
That means the recovery is only paycheck-to-paycheck. It doesn't take much more than a blown gasket on a family vehicle to turn that around. It's a recovery, but it's about as thin as a recovery gets.
In international markets Monday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan lost 0.2 percent and the Shanghai composite index in China shed 0.76 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong dropped 1.84 percent and the Sensex in India slipped 1.6 percent.
The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia lost 0.32 percent.
In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain fell 1.94 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany tumbled 3.37 percent. The CAC 40 in France gave up 2.8 percent and the Stoxx Europe 600 fell 2.4 percent.