The government's report thatin September by 1.2 percent - almost double the 0.7 percent drop analysts expected - made it clear that consumers are reluctant to spend amid a shaky economy and a punishing stock market.
The Commerce Department report was sobering because consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. The reading came as Wall Street was refocusing its attention on the faltering economy following stepped up government efforts to revive the stagnant credit markets.
The release of the Beige Book, the assessment of business conditions from the Federal Reserve, added to investors' angst. The report found that the economy continued to slow in the early fall as financial and credit problems took a turn for the worse. The central bank's report supported the market's belief that difficulties in obtaining loans have choked growth in wide swaths of the economy.
"Even though the banking sector may be returning to normal, the economy still isn't. The economy continues to face a host of other problems," said Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist at ChannelCapitalResearch.com. "We're in for a tough ride."
Fed Chairman, warning in a speech Wednesday that patching up the credit markets won't provide an instantaneous jolt to the economy.
"Stabilization of the financial markets is a critical first step, but even if they stabilize as we hope they will, broader economic recovery will not happen right away," he told the Economic Club of New York.
Analysts have warned that the market will see continued volatility as it tries to recover from the devastating losses of the last month, including the nearly 2,400-point plunge in the Dow over eight sessions. Such turbulence is typical after a huge decline, but the market's anxiety about the economy is also expected to cause gyrations in the weeks and months ahead.
The Dow has closed up - or down - in triple digits in 19 of the last 23 trading sessions, reports CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason. And if you take away last Friday's record 900-point rally, the Dow's been down every day this month.
Selling accelerated in the last hour of trading, a common occurrence during the eight-days of heavy declines. One reason for the heavy selling: Mutual funds need to unload stock to pay investors who are bailing out of the market.
Is there a silver lining?
Oil fell below $75 Wednesday - almost half what it was in July, which means gas prices are heading back to $3 in a hurry, reports Mason.
But prices fell because we're simply driving less - demand last week was nearly 10 percent lower than a year ago. While that's pushing down the price, it's also a sign of a deepening recession, adds Mason.
Investors apparently have come to believe that Monday's big rebound, a response to the government's plan to invest $250 billion in banks to get the lending business restarted, was overdone given the problems elsewhere in the economy.
"It really doesn't come as a shock after Monday's gains were I think a little bit excessive," said Charles Norton, principal and portfolio manager at GNICapital, referring to the market's pullback.
He contends that the government has taken so many steps that investors must now wait for some of the actions to help steady the economy.
"It seems like all the tools in the tool chest have mostly been used now and now it's back to reality," he said. "We're still faced with the fact that the economy is slowing and earnings aren't very good."
Doubts about the economy were already surfacing in Tuesday's session, when investors halted an early rally and began collecting profits from stocks' big Monday advance. Wednesday's data confirmed the market's fears that the economy is likely to remain weak for some time, and that corporate profits are likely to suffer.
Mark Coffelt, portfolio manager at Empiric Funds, said moves by European and U.S. government officials to begin investing directly in banks are easing worries about credit. But the steep pullback in stocks that began last month after the credit markets lurched to a near standstill has now created worries that consumers will spend less after seeing the value of their retirement accounts and other investments drop.
"Markets abhor uncertainty and so we got a lot of that resolved this weekend and we got the reward Monday but now people are saying 'OK, now what is the economy going to do?"'
"We're definitely going to get a slowdown from the terror of going through that," Coffelt said.
According to preliminary calculations, a sell-off that intensified late in the session left Dow down 733.08, or 7.87 percent, at 8,577.91. On Monday, Sept. 29, the Dow had its largest point drop 777.68. The Dow's massive decline marks its 20th triple-digit move in 23 sessions.
Broader stock indicators also skidded. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 90.17, or 9.03 percent, to 907.84, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 150.68, or 8.47 percent, to 1,628.33.