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Repeat After Me: The Markets Are Not the Economy - The New York Times



The two have been intertwined in the American psyche since the 1929 stock crash and the onset of the Great Depression. But stocks are not a reliable gauge of overall economic health.

Credit...Mark Abramson for The New York Times

The stock market looks increasingly divorced from economic reality.

The United States is on the brink of the worst economic collapse since the Hoover administration. Corporate profits have crumpled. More than a million Americans have contracted the coronavirus, and hundreds are dying each day. There is no turnaround in sight.

Yet stocks keep climbing. Even as 20.5 million people lost their jobs in April, the S&P 500 stock index logged its best month in 33 years. After a few weeks of wild swings, the market is down a mere 9.3 percent this year and 13.5 percent from its peak — what most investors would consider a correction. On Friday, after the government released the staggering unemployment figures, the S&P 500 closed up 1.7 percent.

Conventional wisdom would explain the market’s comparatively modest losses this way: Since markets tend to be forward-looking, investors have already accounted for what’s expected to be a cataclysmic drop in second-quarter activity and are forecasting a relatively rapid economic recovery afterward. The Federal Reserve’s actions have also bolstered investors’ confidence that the bottom won’t fall out of the market.

But the pandemic has also highlighted a deeper trend. For decades, the market has been growing increasingly detached from the mainstream of American life, mirroring broad changes in the economy.

“Wall Street has very little to do with Main Street,” said Joachim Klement, a market analyst at Liberum Capital in London. “And less and less so.”

Still, the market retains its grip on the collective imagination. From politicians and corporate executives to mom-and-pop investors, Americans have long relied on the stock market as a proxy for the U.S. economy — for reasons that are partly historical. Its crests suggested bright days ahead, while its troughs suggested a darkening outlook. The current economic fallout, however, could snap any illusions that the logic of the market is derived, in any consistent way, from real-world events.

Part of the reason is the makeup of the stock market, and the fact that the giant companies that make up the S&P 500 operate under very different circumstances than the nation’s small businesses, workers and cities and states. They are highly profitable, hold significant sums of cash and have regular access to public bond markets. They’re far more global than the typical American family firm. (Roughly 40 percent of the revenues of S&P 500 companies come from abroad.)

In 2015, about 600,000 U.S. companies counted at least 20 employees, and only 3,600 of those — or less than 1 percent — were publicly listed, said René Stulz, a professor of finance at Ohio State University, who has studied the changing composition of publicly traded markets.

Because the financial strength of big companies makes them more likely to survive the downturn, their share prices tend to underplay the impact of a widespread economic collapse. In fact, market indexes like the S&P 500 are weighted to reflect the performance of the largest and most profitable companies. In recent weeks, the stocks of such companies have not only veered in the opposite direction of the outlook for the U.S. economy, but from the rest of the stock market itself.

The five largest listed companies — Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook — have continued to climb this year, as investors bet these behemoths will emerge in an even more dominant position after the crisis. Through the end of April, these companies were up roughly 10 percent this year, while the 495 other companies in the S&P were down 13 percent, according to Goldman Sachs analysts. These highly valued firms — Microsoft, Amazon and Apple are each worth more than $1 trillion — now account for one-fifth of the market value of the index, the highest level in 30 years.

“It’s very easy to get confused by looking at the S&P doing well and that being driven by a relatively small subset of firms which aren’t really affected by this virus and actually gain from it,” said Mr. Stulz.

Nor does the mood of the market necessarily reflect the sentiment of a broad swathe of Americans. While U.S. stock markets are more democratic than most, with more than half of American households owning shares or investment funds like mutual funds, the overwhelming majority of stock accounts are relatively modest. Rather, stock ownership is heavily skewed to the richest segments of the population, who are least likely to feel the pain of an economic downturn.

“Stock ownership among the middle class is pretty minimal,” said Ed Wolff, an economist at New York University who studies the net worth of American families. He added: “The fluctuations in the stock market don’t have much effect on the net worth of middle-class families.”

In fact, a relatively small number of wealthy families own the vast majority of the shares controlled by U.S. households.

The most recent data from the Federal Reserve shows that the wealthiest top 10 percent of American households own about 84 percent of the value of all household stock ownership, according to an analysis by Mr. Wolff. The top 1 percent controlled 40 percent of household stock holdings.

Economists who have studied the performance of stock markets over time say there’s relatively little evidence that economic growth matters to the outcome of the market at all.

“The linkage is actually pretty weak,” said Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida who has studied the long-run relationship between economic growth and market returns in world markets. “In the longer run, the relationship is, empirically, it’s not there.”

None of this is a secret. So why do millions of Americans continue to think the market really is a barometer on the economy? That’s more a question of history and culture than economics.

Historians say the stock market’s link in the American psyche to the economic health of the country goes back, at least, to the 1929 crash.

“You can think of the Great Crash as almost traumatizing Americans,” said Janice Traflet, a financial historian at Bucknell University’s Freeman College of Management.

With little quality economic information, many Americans saw the 1929 market collapse — the S&P fell an astounding 86 percent before bottoming in 1932 — as the event that caused the Great Depression. The close connection between the health of the economy and the health of the markets, in the minds of many Americans, had been forged.

“Whether or not they were right or wrong that’s the way many Americans interpreted it. And sometimes perceptions become the reality,” said Ms. Traflet.

The crash put mainstream America off the stock market for decades. But by the 1950s, a marketing push from major Wall Street institutions began to coax newly affluent Americans to invest as postwar prosperity grew. The New York Stock Exchange pushed a campaign urging people to “own your share of American business.”

During the 1950s and 1960s, it was easier to link the health of the largest American companies with the broader health of the country, partly because their enormous payrolls helped fuel the expansion of the middle class.

According to a Brookings Institution report, for example, the two most highly valued companies in the country in 1962 — AT&T and General Motors — employed nearly 1.2 million people combined. Last year, the two largest companies in the S&P 500 — Microsoft and Apple — employed 280,000.

  • Updated April 11, 2020

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • When will this end?

      This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • How does coronavirus spread?

      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Is there a vaccine yet?

      No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.

    • What makes this outbreak so different?

      Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?

      If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Should I stock up on groceries?

      Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.



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