What’s up with this loopy stock market anyway?

Apple, Tesla, Zoom and their ilk have been going nuts, driving the Nasdaq and S&P 500 to report highs—and greatly enriching the billionaire class—(solely to drop precipitously late this week.) All this whereas the economy is in recession and tens of millions are unemployed—some even unable to place meals on the desk.

It’s one more unsettling reality of life throughout COVID-19, although this piece appears notably weird, nevermind unfair and even merciless. 

So what to make of this so-called disconnect between the economy and stock market?

“The stock market and the economy are two completely different things,” says Barry Ritholtz, co-founder and CIO of Ritholtz Wealth Management. “While people assume that there’s some correlation, when you do a mathematical analysis the correlation is all over the place. 2020 is a unique year because not only is there a high level of inverse correlation, it’s the highest we’ve ever seen. The worse the economy has done, the better the stock market does.”

Actually it simply follows that the stock market motion could be notably complicated throughout this notably complicated, and unprecedented interval in our historical past. It could be folly the truth is, to count on a logical path.

Ironically for all we examine and speak about the market, in some ways it stays a thriller. “Stock-market movements are driven largely by investors’ assessments of other investors’ evolving reaction to the news, rather than the news itself,” writes Yale professor and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller in “Understanding the Pandemic Stock Market.”

Still, whenever you drill down and intently look at the markets (large trace right here: general, shares actually aren’t up), the economy and on this case, science, the image turns into extra clear. I must also level out that explaining what the stock market is doing at any particular time limit is all the time vexing, whereas understanding it looking back is a chunk of cake.

For starters, the most simple purpose folks attribute to sturdy stock market efficiency, is that sure, the economy is weak proper now, however that the market all the time appears to be like ahead and ergo shares are up as a result of sooner or later (quickly?) we’ll be out of this COVID-19 mess and can get on with our lives. 

Which is definitely true, although if that have been the solely driver, I’d say the market could be up simply modestly given all the uncertainty. Of course there are every kind of different components in play right here.

Let’s undergo a few of them.

Much has been made from retail buyers, (aka the little man, aka you and me), swooping in to purchase shares this 12 months. “I think it’s playing a real role, though it’s difficult to quantify,” says Liz Ann Sonders, chief funding strategist at Charles Schwab. She offers credence to remarks made by Joe Mecane, Citadel Securities’ head of execution companies, who told Bloomberg in July that “retail traders now account for about a fifth of stock-market trading and as much as a quarter on the most active days.” Jason Ware, chief investment officer at Albion Financial told Yahoo Finance’s The Final Round, “…that’s up 5% or 6% [points] on a year-over-year basis. It was 18% or 19% around this time last year.”

Who are these retail buyers  leaping into the market (which by the means has traditionally been seen as a unfavorable signal) and why? Some name them Robinhooders, referring to clients—lots of them younger, first-time buyers—of the eponymous fintech brokerage that is been rising quicker than summer time corn. As for the why, nicely, what else are you going to do? 

I requested legendary investor Mario Gabelli about them. “Individuals were locked down, Andy, those that were born on Fortnite and other e-games decided that we’ve got to do something. And so you had a new wave of day traders and speculators.”

Here’s what Mario means: Picture, the principle goes, a younger man working from residence a couple of months in the past, bored, watching his laptop computer. There hadn’t been any sports activities to observe, nor any sports activities betting. Suddenly his buddy pings him and says he simply made $1,500 in two days buying and selling Tesla stock. He appears to be like the subsequent day and then the subsequent week and the stock’s up once more, the upward development drawing extra buyers in. Time to open a brokerage account and be part of the celebration, proper?

It’s all really easy. Most brokerages, together with the aforementioned Robinhood, and legacy names like Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, E-Trade and Fidelity now have commission free trading, with zero minimum balances, and lots of those self same corporations additionally offer fractional shares, (Schwab calls them ‘stocks by the slice’), in order that if a stock value is simply too excessive, you possibly can simply purchase a component. (For occasion, Alphabet at the moment trades at $1,550, however you possibly can purchase a fraction of a share for say $150.50, whereby you’d personal a tenth of a share.) Recently Tesla and Apple cut up their shares, (from 4 digits to a few digits) making them much more interesting and accessible to bizarre buyers. (In addition, many of those younger buyers have been shopping for name choices which are inclined to exacerbate stock strikes.)

Commission free-trading with zero balances and fractional shares are comparatively latest phenomena which serve to make buying and selling that rather more interesting as a pastime. Add to that the undeniable fact that lots of the hottest shares have been the stay-at-home trades, or corporations whose merchandise the Robinhooders have been always utilizing—like Apple, Zoom, Peloton, Amazon, and many others. 

So which means the Robinhooders made the market go up? 

Not actually.

The influence of day merchants? “I don’t think the volumes are contributing a huge amount one way or another,” says JJ Kinahan, TD Ameritrade Chief Market Strategist.

“It’s tiny,” provides Ritholtz. “Vanguard has $6 trillion [in assets], BlackRock is $7 trillion. Robinhood is pocket change—a couple billion in assets. Most of the day trading, which is buying a thousand shares in the morning of xyz and selling it in the afternoon, makes no difference to the market.”

There’s additionally quantitative evidence according to the ever-astute Nick Maggiulli of Ritholz, who used knowledge about Robinhood accounts (and from Yahoo Finance—thanks Nick), to see if there was “a high correlation between the change in the number of Robinhood users holding [a stock] and its one-day price change.” While Maggiulli did discover some correlations, it was principally in speculative shares like Hertz, Kodak and Moderna, whereas “…stocks like Apple, Amazon, and Tesla show basically no correlation,” he writes. Meaning that whereas these buyers might have an effect on costs of small shares they don’t have any on large shares and by extension the general market.

You need to know what’s sufficiently big to maneuver the stock market although? Try the U.S. authorities. 

“We’re printing money like it’s going out of style,” Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce advised me this week after I requested him about the market. (Salesforce stock has climbed greater than 50% year-to-date—even after the latest decline—and was added to the Dow Jones Industrials Average at the finish of final month.) “There’s so much liquidity in the markets today because of the massive flood of money that has been put in the system, creating massive inflation,” he mentioned. “A lot of what you see in the stock market or if you look at what’s happened in a lot of these real estate markets in the U.S., you see massive inflation underway.”

True that Marc.

Marc Benioff, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce, speaks at an Economic Club of Washington luncheon in Washington, DC, on October 18, 2019. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP through Getty Images)

“The stimulus has been a massive support, particularly on the monetary side,” says Sonders of Schwab. “If you add in the fiscal side, you’re looking at 40% of GDP. When you pump trillions of dollars of liquidity into the economy and the economy is shut down, it means the economy can’t absorb liquidity. Where’s it go? Goes into assets. Not just the stock market, but commodities, precious metals, crypto. The Fed talks about generating inflation; it generated inflation in asset prices, not the real economy.”

But not all shares have benefited from the Fed’s largess. 

Yes the large tech shares are up large time (to a small diploma because of retail buyers), however extra as a result of their companies are doing nicely throughout the pandemic. Ritholz factors out as an illustration that Apple, Google and Facebook get greater than half of their income from abroad. “Why is that important,” he asks? “[Because] the U.S. is 4% of the world population and has a quarter of infections. The rest of the world is managing lockdown much better, so if half of your business comes from overseas you’re doing well.” 

Which means these corporations have wholesome earnings streams and skilled buyers (and their algorithms) purchase the shares and the shares go up. So a handful of tech corporations are kicking up their heels, good for them, however it hasn’t actually helped the general stock market. 

What about preventing the vaccine? “We’ve had some really positive and encouraging developments on the scientific front,” says Ware of Albion. “With vaccines, every card we’ve flipped over has been positive. Some therapeutics have helped us learn to manage and live with the virus. What used to be fear in March and April about deep, dark unknowns we’ve started to answer some of those questions this summer. While we haven’t solved them, we have a better idea of the path forward, and I think that’s certainly helped the stock market.”

But once more, actually the general stock market? Yes a few high-flying biotech stocks like Novavax, Inovio, Moderna and BioNTech are lit, however even pharmaceutical stocks in general are no great shakes (down 5% this year.)

In reality, Sonders and Ritholz would argue the stock market writ giant and the economy are actually on the similar web page. 

“I actually think the market and the economy are less disconnected,” says Sonders. “If you look underneath the hood, what has been troubling to market watchers like myself, has been how concentrated the move up has been, really just in a small subset of stocks. As of two days ago, on a year-to-date basis the top five stocks in the S&P were up 48% and the bottom 495 were down 2%. Beyond the headlines of all-time highs, is the reality of very few dominant winners and a heck of a lot of companies left behind. To some degree that is reflective of what’s going on in the economy.”

Ritholz concurs. “Look around at what’s doing poorly in your neighborhood,” he says. “These companies are not publicly traded. The  problem is that stock market indices like the S&P 500 are market-cap weighted, meaning the bigger company, the more it matters to the index. When you share the actual data, people are blown away.

“Department stores have fallen over 60% this year; but they’re 0.01% of the S&P 500. Tiny relative to other things. Airlines are less than a fifth of a percent of the index. If we were to take the weakest 30 sectors in the S&P 500 and remove them from the index, it’d barely be 2% of the total index.”

And conversely the large techs depend a ton. Just six shares: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Tesla now make up half of the Nasdaq 100. Those shares are all up between three and 66 occasions greater than the stock market this 12 months. Earlier this week, Apple’s market value was more than the value of the Russell 2000 index (a complete index of small U.S. corporations.) Tesla’s stock was lately up 1,000% over the previous 12 months. 

FILE – In this July 25, 2017, file photograph, Alphabet stock is proven on a display screen at the Nasdaq MarketWeb site in New York. Shares in Google father or mother Alphabet jumped in after-hours buying and selling Monday, July 23, 2018, as the firm’s second-quarter outcomes exceeded Wall Street forecasts after considering a $5 billion cost levied by European regulators. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

It’s all astounding. And extremely distorting.

Bottom line: It isn’t a lot that the stock market is up, it’s that stock market indexes which are up due to only a few shares. 

Most shares like the economy are usually not doing practically so nicely. 

“Stocks are rarely priced well,” says Ritholz. “People forget fair value is just something stocks careen by on the way to being expensive or cheap. A lot now depends on how things progress. We don’t know what will happen. That’s why the bull and the bear case are so at odds. Our fate isn’t sealed.”

“You have to respect the downside of the market — it’s the most humbling instrument that exists,” says Kinahan of TD Ameritrade “I do worry people get lulled into security on the upside buying dips. It has paid off not only since March but over the last 10 years.”

Where can we go from right here? It’s all the time the similar reply. 

By value earnings ratios, shares are very costly. By the dividend low cost mannequin (primarily utilizing rates of interest to worth future earnings flows), shares are nonetheless low-cost. Yes that’s as a result of rates of interest are close to zero, however that type of divergence is uncommon. Confusing even.

Welcome as soon as once more to 2020.

This article was featured in a Saturday version of the Morning Brief on September 5, 2020. Get the Morning Brief despatched on to your inbox each Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.

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