"If you lose faith, then you're in recession. And if you panic, you're in depression," Zandi said. "We're somewhere between recession and depression at this point, and that's why it's so important for policymakers to act very aggressively, boldly, consistently to shore up confidence."
The Obama administration is pushing a $1,000 tax credit, and packages that include job creation and help for homeowners. But economists say consumers need to know their jobs are secure, their homes are safe from foreclosure and that they can get a loan before they will start taking advantage of the bargains around them.
"They can go into a department store, and they see the bargain of a lifetime, and they say, 'Oh, my gosh. I'm going to take that opportunity,'" Zandi said.
Economists and business leaders agree that American consumers will spend again, but they might never return to their old, excessive spending habits.
"I think they are learning what they can save on their own. [Families] save hundreds and hundreds of dollars. It's not so hard to brew a great cup of coffee at home. I don't know that if the economy comes back that people are going to go very quickly back to their old habits."