How can Wall Street be so healthy when Main Street isn’t?
NEW YORK — The stock market is not the economy.
Rarely has that adage been as clear as it is now. An amazing, monthslong rally means the S&P 500 is roughly back to where it was before the coronavirus slammed the U.S, even though millions of workers are still getting unemployment benefits and businesses continue to shutter across the country.
The S&P 500, which is the benchmark index for stock funds at the heart of many 401(k) accounts, ended Wednesday at 3,380.35 after briefly topping its closing record of 3,386.15 set on Feb. 19. It’s erased nearly all of the 34 percent plunge from February into March in less time than it takes a baby to learn how to crawl.
The U.S. and global economies have shown some improvements since the spring, when business lockdowns were widespread, but they are nowhere close to fully healed. The number of virus cases continues to rise across much of the United States, and federal and local politicians for the most part lack a strategy to contain it. Many industries, such as airlines, hotels and dining, could take years to recover from the damage.
The Federal Reserve and the U.S. government get a lot of the credit for the rally after pouring trillions of dollars into the economy. Profits also remained incredibly resilient for the stock market’s most influential companies, such as Apple and Amazon. Rising hopes for a potential vaccine to halt the pandemic, meanwhile, have encouraged investors to look past the current dreary statistics.
Here’s a look at how Wall Street has flourished while Main Street struggles:
THE MARKET’S BIG GUNS
The corner bars, the family restaurants, the hair salons and other small businesses across the U.S. that are teetering or closing for good aren’t listed on the stock market. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google’s parent company are, and movements in their stocks alone are dictating the action in the S&P 500 more than ever before.
The pandemic has accelerated work-at-home and other trends that have boosted Big Tech, and their profits are piling up. The five big tech-oriented giants are now worth a combined $7.6 trillion, and by themselves account for more than 22 percent of the S&P 500’s total value.
Because stocks with the biggest market values carry the most weight in the S&P 500, the movements of Big Tech matter much more than what airlines, cruise-ship operators or other still-struggling companies are doing. American Airlines is down more than 50 percent for 2020 so far, but its much smaller market value means it doesn’t move the needle like Big Tech. It would take 280 American Airlines to have the heft of one Apple.
The stock market has seen some broadening out of gains recently, with stocks of smaller companies doing better. But Big Tech has done the heaviest lifting in the S&P 500’s rally.
HELP FROM WASHINGTON
A famous saying on Wall Street is: Don’t fight the Fed. The central bank is doing everything it can to support the economy, from cutting interest rates to nearly zero to the unprecedented promise to buy even riskier corporate debt. It’s all aimed at ensuring lending markets have enough cash to run smoothly and to prevent prices from going haywire. Economists say the moves have helped avoid a 2008-09 style meltdown of the financial system.
The Fed has signaled that it will keep its benchmark short-term interest rate at nearly zero through at least 2022, and low rates are often like steroids for stocks. With Treasurys and other bonds paying relatively little in interest, some investors are turning instead to stocks, gold and other investments, boosting their prices.
Congress also approved an unprecedented amount of aid for the economy. Some portions of that aid have already expired, and another economic relief package is tied up in partisan rancor on Capitol Hill. But many investors seem to expect Washington to eventually come to a compromise and throw another lifeline to the economy.