The Stock Market and the Economy Are Not the Same: A Guide to Understanding the Difference
When we think of financial health, a few things might come to mind. We may think of our own financial status, our investments, the Dow Jones Industrial Average performance, the stock market as a whole, the economy, the country’s employment status and so on. While some aspects may be interrelated on some level, they are not all one and the same, nor do they all indicate the status of one another.
The various ways we can characterize financial well-being speaks to why so many people think of the stock market and the economy’s health as a gauge for each other. However, the stock market does not define economic health as a whole. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, stocks are back on the rise, but many individuals - and the country as a whole - are still facing the effects of business closures, record-breaking unemployment rates and more. So why is this? Below, we outline the major differences between the stock market and the economy and why one can progress while the other tells a different story.
What Is the Economy?
The economy can be defined as “the wealth and resources of a country or region, especially in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services.”1 More specifically, one way we can understand economic activity is through real GDP (gross domestic product), which measures the value of goods and services while factoring inflation into the equation. As a result, understanding the health of the economy can be thought of in terms of the growth rate of real GDP, meaning whether or not the production of goods and services is increasing or decreasing.2
Economic Health in Terms of GDP and Employment
Naturally, employment may rise as production and consumption increase. To produce more goods, companies and factories might hire more employees to complete such production. With more individuals employed and gathering paychecks, more people have money to spend on such goods - increasing overall consumption. Sometimes, however, GDP can grow but not quick enough to create more jobs for those who are unemployed. 2
What Is the Stock Market?
The stock market can be defined simply as “a stock exchange.”3 It is the buying and selling of ownership shares in a corporation.4 The stock market is comprised, therefore, of the buyers and sellers (with some buyers and sellers holding more “stock” than others) and is not necessarily indicative of every business, worker and family.
Some of the main indexes used to understand how the market is performing are the Dow Jones Industrial Average (tracking of 30 leading companies), the S&P 500 Index (500 stocks across all industries), and the Nasdaq Composite Index (a dynamic mix of 3,000 stocks across the technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors).5
The Stock Market vs. The Economy in the Context of COVID-19
The stock market and the economy can display very different pictures of “progress.” One such example is with COVID-19. In regards to the stock market, the major indexes including the S&P, the DJIA and the Nasdaq Composite index all have surged since the market downturn in March.6 On the other hand, GDP decreased by five percent in 2020’s first quarter, and as of June 2020, the number of unemployed individuals rose to 12 million since February. 7,8 Why is there such a disconnect? A few reasons below.
When considering the make-up of the S&P, the DJIA and the Nasdaq Composite index, the stock market isn’t representative of all who make up the U.S. economy. It is largely made up of companies that are different than small businesses, workers and cities in the U.S. - with different profits, greater access to bond markets and global positioning.
It can be challenging to reconcile why stock markets could conceivably perform well amidst a constant barrage of negative economic news. Intuitively, it just doesn’t make sense. But, the apparent disconnect between markets and the economy is actually normal.
This is because the economic data we are bombarded with is backwards looking. It tells us what happened. The Employment Situation Report, for example, reports the previous week’s unemployment numbers. Most of the other monthly economic data, by comparison, captures what happened in the previous month – with some data reports going back two months.
The stock markets, on the other hand, are forward-looking. Consider this: the massive sell-off in late February and early March was more about the markets (i.e., investors) feeling uncertain given the new and growing coronavirus pandemic. But the economic data received during this sell-off was actually showing very healthy signs.
How forward does the market look? Well the answer to that depends on who you ask. But generally speaking, the markets look forward at least a couple of quarters, maybe even as much as 18 months.
The stock market’s performance as a whole only represents a portion of the U.S. employment market. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that the wealthiest 10 percent of households in the United States were in control of 84 percent of the total value of stock shares, bonds, trusts and business equity and over 80 percent of non-home real estate. This was true despite the fact that half of all households owned a portion through mutual funds, trusts or various pension accounts. Therefore, the stock market may not display an equal distribution between those who make up the economy as a whole.9
It’s long been understood that at times, investors may be driven by emotional or reaction decision-making. As a result, their behavior may not be mimicking the economy’s current state nor affairs happening in real-time.
While the stock market may reflect some changes in the economy and vice versa, the status of one does not show the entire portrait of the other. At times, they can tell entirely different stories, as is the case with COVID-19. Considering other factors such as unemployment can provide a fuller depiction of the state of the economy and the financial well-being of its residents.
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