Stocks fall as traders fear consumers aren't perking up

Investors' rising fears about consumer spending are turning stocks into a risky investment again.

Stocks fell by the sharpest amount in six weeks and Treasury prices soared Monday as investors around the world feared that consumers aren't too anxious to spend the economy into recovery.

The losses on stock exchanges extended the heavy selling that began Friday with a disappointing reading on consumer confidence. And bond investors, once again searching for a safe investment, bought heavily into Treasurys.

The Dow Jones industrials fell 186 points, while overseas, the Shanghai stock market tumbled almost 6% and the major indexes in Europe fell more than 1%.

Stocks slid across all industries as investors worried that consumers' reluctance to spend will hurt corporate earnings. Many companies' second-quarter results were boosted by cost-cutting, not higher sales, and the fear is that without a pickup in sales, earnings will fall.

While other parts of the economy, including housing and manufacturing, are showing signs of progress, the country cannot have a strong recovery unless consumers are spending more freely. Their spending accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

Traders got more bad news about the consumer Monday when home improvement retailer Lowe's said poor weather and cautious dpending caused sales to fall 19% in the second quarter. The company's results missed analysts' forecasts.

The market's reaction to news of a reluctant consumer had many questioning whether a five-month rally was way too optimistic. At its recent high the S&P 500 index had climbed almost 50% from a 12-year low in early March.

Joe Saluzzi, co-head of equity trading at Themis Trading, said the market had risen too far and that the selling was warranted.

"The economics obviously don't support where we've been," he said.

Other analysts were more upbeat, saying some retreat was to be expected.

"We have come an awful long way. To not expect a sell-off after the degree of increase — I think you're dreaming," said John Merrill, chief investment officer of Tanglewood Wealth Management in Houston.

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow fell 186.06, or 2.0%, to 9,135.34. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 24.36, or 2.4%, to 979.73, while Nasdaq composite index fell 54.68, or 2.8%, to 1,930.84.

It was the biggest drop for major stock indexes since July 2, when a weak employment report fanned worries about the economy. The indexes fell more than 2.5%.

About 2,700 stocks fell while only 315 rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 655.1 million shares compared with 594 million shares traded Friday.

The Chicago Board Options Exchange's Volatility Index, also known as the market's fear index, surged 13.2%. The VIX rose 3.20 to 27.47. It is down 31% in 2009 and its historical average is 18 to 20. It hit a record 89.5 in October at the height of the financial crisis.

Meanwhile, the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 3.49% from 3.57% late Friday.

Overseas, China's main market fell 5.8% as investors worried that stocks had risen too quickly and the government would tighten bank lending policies. Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 3.1% as investors weren't satisfied by news that the country had emerged from recession in the second quarter.

In Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 fell 1.5%, Germany's DAX index lost 2%, and France's CAC-40 fell 2.2%.

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