The world isn't flat. But the market is.

chart_ws_index_dow.top(2).png By Paul R. La Monica, editor at large


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- What do pancakes, tapeworms, old soda and the stock market have in common? They're all flat.

With nearly seven months of 2010 in the can, stocks are trading right about where they began the year. The Dow closed at 10,428.05 on December 31, 2009. It opened on Monday at 10,424.17.

paul_lamonica_morning_buzz2.jpg

Of course, this long journey back to where we started has hardly been boring. Stocks have been on a wild roller coaster ride. They surged on economic recovery hopes in the first quarter -- only to plunge in the second quarter thanks to renewed fears of a global double-dip recession.

Now investors are digesting the latest results from big corporations and analyzing their guidance for the remainder of the year. So we must ask, in the immortal words of Axl Rose, "Where do we go? Where do we go now? Where do we go?"

It's not an easy question to answer. Sure, some companies are growing increasingly optimistic. 3M (MMM, Fortune 500), Eli Lilly (LLY, Fortune 500) and Whirlpool (WHR, Fortune 500), for example, all boosted their outlooks last week. And FedEx (FDX, Fortune 500) raised its full-year profit target on Monday, citing a "continued moderate recovery in the global economy."

But many economists are still wary. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke rattled investors' nerves last week by saying in front of Congress that the recovery was "unusually uncertain."

This shouldn't be a surprise. It's overly simplistic to think that the economy is either going to roar back to life or is doomed to slip back into another recession -- especially when you consider just how painful the last downturn was.

For every strong earnings report, there seems to be an equally gloomy piece of economic data. Even good news, like the 24% jump in new home sales in June, is tempered by the fact that the rise is merely coming off a record low in May.

"This is a half-speed, half-hearted recovery. It's taking its time to unfold and is painfully slow," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist with The PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh. "We may move two steps forward and one step back for awhile."

Yes, it's frustrating to investors and consumers who want clarity about the economy and markets. We have to get used to it though.

Questions about the strength of the economy are likely to persist for some time. Yanick Desnoyers, assistant chief economist with National Bank Financial in Montreal titled a report about the U.S. economy last week "Recovery or relapse?"

In that report, Desnoyers indicated that rising profits for big companies in the United States is a positive, but that the chances of a double-dip "are not yet nil."

With that in mind, other experts said that people should expect the cloud of uncertainty to linger ... and for a long time to boot.

"The market is going to bounce around a lot. One day, we'll get excited about corporate earnings but then there may be overarching economic data that points to the recovery being a tough go," said Paul Nolte, managing director with Dearborn Partners, an investment firm based in Chicago.

Nolte said that the recovery from the Great Recession is likely to be muddled and take years. As the effects of stimulus from Washington starts to fade, the onus will be more on businesses and individuals to start spending again.

"What we're looking at now is a transition from a government supported economy to a recovery that hopefully will be sustained by consumers and corporations," Nolte said. "But we're getting a mixed picture and a lot of it has to do with debt. Companies have strong balance sheets but consumers still have a lot of debt."

Hoffman agreed, adding that until companies truly become more confident about the economy, they are unlikely to make a big push to hire people. He said he thinks the unemployment rate will slowly slip this year from its current level of 9.5% but that it is only likely to fall to just below 9% by the end of 2011.

That's obviously not welcome news to those looking for a job. Keep in mind that even though there was a long jobless recovery following the last recession in 2001, the peak unemployment rate after that downturn was just 6.3%.

That's why even though some economists think the economy hit bottom sometime in the summer of 2009, many consumers don't feel like that's the case.

"I think the recovery has been going on for a year but we're still debating whether or not it's a recovery. That speaks to the frailty of it," Hoffman said.

- The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney.com, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.  To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Overnight Avg Rate Latest Change Last Week
30 yr fixed4.01%4.03%
15 yr fixed3.12%2.97%
5/1 ARM3.11%2.99%
30 yr refi4.04%4.09%
15 yr refi3.15%3.05%
Rate data provided
by Bankrate.com
View rates in your area
 
Find personalized rates:
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 17,804.80 26.65 0.15%
Nasdaq 4,765.38 16.98 0.36%
S&P 500 2,070.65 9.42 0.46%
Treasuries 2.18 -0.03 -1.27%
Data as of 3:36pm ET
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 17.62 0.09 0.51%
Apple Inc 111.78 -0.87 -0.77%
General Electric Co 25.62 0.48 1.91%
Intel Corp 36.37 -0.65 -1.76%
Microsoft Corp 47.66 0.14 0.29%
Data as of Dec 19

Sections

New York Magazine reporter Jessica Pressler, who has been caught up in controversy this past week, will not be moving on to a new job at Bloomberg News. More

Investors beware: These 5 global crises are likely to rattle the stock market and world economy. More

Forums in dark corners of the web sell the kinds of hacks that befell Sony. More

Unilever sued Hampton Creek over its egg-free mayonnaise spread Just Mayo. But the company behind Best Foods and Hellman's mayonnaise has now dropped the lawsuit. More

The income of the top 1% jumped significantly in 2012, far outpacing inflation. Not only did this group make a larger share of the country's income, their share of total taxes also jumped from 35% to 38%. More

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.