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Coronavirus economics: Why Wall Street is not Main Street

“The stock market is not an indicator of how people are doing in our economy,” said an economist

An American flag is shown on the building of the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, April 10, 2020, in New York.
Frank Franklin II, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — If you held a stethoscope or a thermometer up to the stock market, it would be hard to find any sign or symptom of the economic ails the coronavirus has left on the economy.

As the closing bell rang at the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday, the S&P 500 — a top index to gauge market activity— had recovered from its pandemic plummet in March, according to MarketWatch. Other indices, like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Nasdaq, were also climbing.

But if you are looking to Wall Street to find the true economic impact of the coronavirus, you’d be looking in the wrong place. The stock market is not the American economy.

“The stock market is not an indicator of how people are doing in our economy,” said Sandra Black, an economics and international and public affairs professor at Columbia University. “It’s an indicator of what our expectations are about businesses, particularly large businesses, in the future.”

As an example of the difference between Wall Street and Main Street, Black — who served on former President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers — described how stocks can jump based on a positive outlook for a company’s future, which in turn benefits the corporation and shareholders.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that the person working at the restaurant down the street cares ... and they have not become better off, necessarily,” she explained.

“So right now, there’s just an even bigger than normal disconnect between what the stock market is telling us and how people are doing in the economy,” Black said. She added that this has led to a recent push to consider broader indicators beyond gross domestic product when analyzing the economy’s strength or weakness.

These could include indicators from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly jobs report, such as the unemployment rate, as well as wage measures, Black said.

There were 1.8 million jobs added to the economy in July, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced in its monthly jobs reports Friday. But that was fewer than the 4.8 million jobs gained in June, possibly showing a leveling off of unemployment recovering as coronavirus cases climbed this summer.

The national unemployment rate dropped nearly a percent to 10.2% in July, according to the report. Three months of declining unemployment seems to show some economic growth, but the American economy is still short 10 million job compared to February, when joblessness was at 3.5%.

Another indicator going the opposite direction of the stock market, is the GDP, or the value of goods and services created in the United States. Last week, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced the second quarter of the 2020 marked the largest drop ever in GDP.

Brigitte Madrian, an economist and dean of the BYU Marriott School of Business, explained that government indicators like unemployment rates, industrial capacity and productivity and consumer spending metrics paint a clearer picture of what is actually happening in the economy.

And publishing those metrics can drive market activity. But, that activity “reflects the sentiments of the people and institutions who have money to invest,” she said.

“Wall Street is a metaphor for the large financial institutions that have significant sway on how money is invested in the economy,” said Madrian. Those investors are highly educated and are disproportionately white and male, she added.

“As opposed to the average person or small business” that makes up America’s metaphorical Main Street, and has less influence on the stock market, said Madrian. In Black’s analogy, the restaurant worker reflects Main Street.

How to revive the economy also has a political component, as lawmakers and the White House deliberate the merits of additional pandemic-induced economic stimulus.

Talks between White House officials and congressional Democratic leaders remain in a stalemate Friday over the details of the next stimulus package, Politico reported. The president has threatened to intervene with an executive order extending enhanced unemployment benefits and other programs of earlier pandemic bills.

“The tension between Wall Street and Main Street is clear when you consider the priorities of different political factions, with some focusing on corporate liability protection and others focusing on unemployment benefits and workplace safety,” Black said. “These policies prioritize very different segments of our society.”