Graphics by Julia Wolfe
We’ve said it before: The stock market is not the economy.
Usually, this simply means that fluctuations in the markets may have little to no real bearing on the underlying realities we think of as making up the economy. Or that there are many important structural factors that make the markets’ outlook different from how ordinary citizens view the country’s overall economic health.
But now, those usual bromides risk wildly understating the disconnect. In the time of COVID-19, the stock market couldn’t be more divorced from the United States’ broader economic situation. Although the S&P 500 tumbled sharply in March, as the coronavirus shut down large swaths of the economy, it had made back almost all of its losses by the first week of June — before dipping again and then quickly rebounding yet again.
Even beyond the markets, there has been some data to suggest that the worst fears about the economy in late March and April were too pessimistic. (Take May’s jobs report, for instance, which showed a surprising decline in unemployment even after accounting for a classification problem with laid-off workers.) But the overall state of unemployment is still quite bad by historical standards, which mirrors numerous important economic indicators that are almost uniformly down — to a significant degree — from last summer:
Obviously, not every core indicator has dropped off a cliff in the face of this recession. Inflation, as measured by the sticky-price consumer price index (excluding ever-volatile food and energy expenditures), has dipped some since February — from 2.8 percent year-over-year to 2.1 percent — but remains in a relatively normal range. New building permits (a sign of construction investment and activity) have rebounded from an initial dip and are almost back at last year’s level. And measures of credit risk, such as the TED spread, have stabilized, indicating a low implied risk of commercial-bank defaults.
But employment rates, oil prices, consumer confidence and many other measures paint a clear recessionary picture. Even corporate earnings — which in theory help dictate the prices of shares on the market — suffered their worst quarter since 2008. (This is what has driven forward-looking price-earnings ratio forecasts for the S&P skyward.)
And yet stock indices continue to rebound much faster than the rest of the economy.
Why? As is usually the case in economics, it’s complicated — and everyone has a pet theory. A few include the idea that investors are betting on a quick “V-shaped” recovery (rather than the longer, slower “swoosh” shape many economists have predicted) and banking on corporate profits eventually rebounding in the medium and long run. (And why not? The Federal Reserve’s actions have made it clear this is a priority.)
Some prominent tech companies at the top of the market (such as Microsoft, Apple and Alphabet) actually have reason to think the pandemic could shift business in their favor, with so much emphasis placed on digital shopping, communication and entertainment. And the rise of algorithm-based trading has insulated markets somewhat from the shocks that could be created by big news events, such as political developments or the protests against racial injustice currently sweeping across the country, since dispassionate algorithms don’t get worried or scared by the news the way humans do.
But Tara Sinclair, an economics professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Indeed Hiring Lab, told me she thinks the markets are also providing a better place for wealthy people to stash their money than alternatives like bonds or banks.
“People, particularly the rich, have cut back their spending, so they need to park their funds somewhere like the stock market (especially since interest rates are rock bottom),” she said in an email. “Inequality can mean that even with millions out of work, there might still be a glut of funds from the high-earning and/or high-wealth individuals.”
As Paul Krugman of The New York Times pointed out relatively early in the crisis, the yield on Treasury bonds is so low (see the chart above) that stocks are an attractive option — even in the midst of a recession caused by a once-in-a-generation pandemic.
“Recent stock market performance could be more about something like a savings glut rather than optimism on the future value of companies,” Sinclair told me. “It may be more about the S&P 500 being better than anywhere else to put funds rather than about actual optimism.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no optimism driving investors’ actions, though. “Maybe (hopefully?) people are investing for the longer term and are viewing the current economic situation as substantially temporary,” Sinclair wrote.
And it’s worth noting that, despite everything, the markets are not totally separate from the virus that continues to afflict every corner of the world.
When news of the coronavirus first hit, the VIX — a measure of market volatility perhaps better known as the “fear index” — spiked to 82.7, its highest level ever. (The previous high was 80.9, which it hit in November 2008, when the Great Recession sparked a massive selloff.) News of a COVID-19 resurgence earlier this month caused the VIX to surge to 40.8, another abnormally high number — outside of recessions, the VIX usually floats between 10 and 20. Despite the rising indices, uncertainty rules the stock market right now.
What that means down the line is anybody’s guess. But for now, Wall Street has shown a shocking amount of resilience even as almost every other economic indicator has tanked. If nothing else, let this be the final confirmation that, once and for all, the stock market is not the economy.
Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. @Neil_Paine