US families are getting some relief because oil prices are about 30 cents a gallon cheaper than they were at the start of the summer. But the benefits are tempered by the context in which these price declines come: fear of a weakening economy.
James O'Sullivan, chief economist at MF Global, takes some comfort in what happened last year. Stocks plunged 14 percent between late April and early July on fears about Europe's debt crisis.
"The economy lost a bit of momentum, but it didn't go into recession, and it accelerated again before the end of the year," O'Sullivan notes.
Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors says the damage to consumers' psyche would have been worse years ago. But when the tech-stock bubble burst in 2000 and stocks tanked in 2008, "people lost an awful lot and became more conservative."
Yet if the selloff in stocks continues, Naroff says, "it could convince people we're heading toward another recession" - and perhaps turn the fears into reality.
Image: Prices are shown as Jaqueline Henderson pumps gas at a station in Portland, Oregon.