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Wall Street vs Main Street: The Stock Market is Not the Economy

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Wall Street vs Main Street

Wall Street vs Main Street

This infographic is available as a poster.

Wall Street vs Main Street

In 2020, the stock market and the economy had a very public break up. The Wall Street vs Main Street divide—the gap between America’s financial markets and the economy—was growing. By the end of the year, the S&P 500 Index closed at a record high. In contrast, 20 million Americans remained unemployed, up from 2 million at the start of the year.

Was 2020 an outlier, or does the performance of the stock market typically diverge from the economy? In this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we show U.S. economic growth and stock market performance over the last four decades, to see how closely the two relate.

GDP Growth and S&P 500 Returns

Here’s how annual GDP growth and S&P 500 Index returns stack up from 1980 to the second quarter of 2021. Both metrics are net of inflation.

YearReal GDP GrowthReal S&P 500 Returns
1980-0.3%13.9%
19812.5%-18.3%
1982-1.8%10.8%
19834.6%13.4%
19847.2%-2.5%
19854.2%23.0%
19863.5%12.9%
19873.5%-2.2%
19884.2%7.9%
19893.7%22.4%
19901.9%-12.4%
1991-0.1%23.4%
19923.5%1.4%
19932.8%4.4%
19944.0%-4.2%
19952.7%31.4%
19963.8%17.2%
19974.4%29.3%
19984.5%25.1%
19994.8%16.6%
20004.1%-13.5%
20011.0%-14.6%
20021.7%-26.0%
20032.9%24.5%
20043.8%5.8%
20053.5%-0.7%
20062.9%11.4%
20071.9%-0.6%
2008-0.1%-39.2%
2009-2.5%21.6%
20102.6%11.1%
20111.6%-3.1%
20122.2%11.6%
20131.8%28.3%
20142.5%10.9%
20153.1%-1.4%
20161.7%7.3%
20172.3%17.2%
20183.0%-8.1%
20192.2%26.8%
2020-3.5%14.9%
Q1 20211.5%4.5%
Q2 20211.6%5.8%

Note: For Q1 and Q2 2021, real GDP growth and inflation rates are quarterly rates and are seasonally adjusted.

More often than not, GDP growth and S&P 500 Index returns have both been positive. The late ‘90s saw particularly strong economic activity and stock performance. According to the White House, economic growth was bolstered by cutting the deficit, modernizing job training, and increasing exports. Meanwhile, increasing investor confidence and the growing tech bubble led to annual stock market returns that exceeded 20%.

In the selected timeframe, only 2008 saw a decline in both the stock market and the economy. This was, of course, caused by the Global Financial Crisis. Banks lent out subprime mortgages, or mortgages to people with impaired credit ratings. These mortgages were then pooled together and repackaged into investments such as mortgage-backed securities (MBS). When interest rates rose and home prices collapsed, this led to mortgage defaults and financial institution bankruptcies as many MBS investments became worthless.

Moving in Opposite Directions

What about when the Wall Street vs Main Street divide grows?

Historically, it has been more common to see positive GDP growth and negative stock performance. For example, real GDP grew by a whopping 7% in 1984 due to “Reaganomics”, such as tax cuts and anti-inflation monetary policy. However, the stock market declined as rising treasury yields of up to 14% made fixed income investments more attractive than equities.

On the other hand, in five of the six years with negative GDP growth, there have been positive stock returns. The most recent example of this is 2020. Real GDP declined by 3.5%, while the S&P 500 returned almost 15% net of inflation.

The Stock Market is not the Economy

There are a number of reasons why the stock market may not necessarily reflect what is happening in the economy.

  • The stock market reflects long-term views. A stock’s price factors in what investors think a company will earn in the future. If investors are confident in the likelihood of an economic recovery, stock prices will likely rise. In contrast, GDP growth is a hard measure of current activity.
  • Sector weightings in the stock market do not reflect their contributions to GDP. The stock market remained resilient in 2020 largely because technology, media, and telecom (TMT) stocks performed well. Despite making up 35% of the market cap of the largest 1,000 U.S. stocks, these companies only account for 8% of U.S. GDP. In contrast, hard-hit companies such as restaurants and gyms generate lots of jobs and contribute materially to GDP. However, many of these businesses accounted for a small portion of the stock market or are not even publicly listed.
  • Fiscal policy lags behind monetary policy. The U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) can act quickly. For instance, the Fed bought $1.7 trillion of Treasury securities between mid-March and June 2020 to stabilize financial markets. On the other hand, fiscal support requires legislative approvals. The U.S. government initially provided large-scale economic stimulus through the CARES Act in March 2020, but further relief packages were stalled due to political disagreements.

While many factors are at play, the above can help explain the Wall Street vs Main Street divide.

Wall Street vs Main Street: Together and Apart

Over the last 41 years, the economy and the stock market have moved in opposite directions almost as often as they have moved in the same direction. Here’s a summary of their movements from 1980-2020.

 # of Years
Stock Growth, GDP Growth22
Stock Decline, GDP Growth13
Stock Growth, GDP Decline5
Stock Decline, GDP Decline1

Since 1980, these time periods of differing performance have never lasted more than three consecutive years. In fact, one economist described the stock market and the unemployment rate as two people walking down the street, tethered by a rope.

”When the rope is slack, they move apart. But they can never get too far away from each other.”
—Roger Farmer, University of Warwick economist

After their public breakup in 2020, the Wall Street vs Main Street divide appears to have healed. In the first two quarters of 2021, both the stock market and the economy saw growth. Perhaps it’s easiest to sum up their relationship in two words: it’s complicated.

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Markets in a Minute

The Projected Growth of Alternative Assets

Alternative assets — assets beyond stocks and bonds — are projected to grow by 62% from 2020-2025. Here’s which ones may grow the fastest.

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Alternative Assets

This infographic is available as a poster.

The Projected Growth of Alternative Assets

When it comes to investing, the focus is typically on stocks and bonds. However, in recent years, many investors have turned their attention to another opportunity: alternative assets.

In fact, global assets under management (AUM) in alternatives are projected to grow by 62% from 2020-2025. In this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments, we explain what alternative assets are and which categories will see the most growth.

What are Alternative Assets?

Alternative assets are investments that fall outside of the traditional asset classes of stocks, bonds, and cash. They are broken up into the following asset classes:

  • Private equity: Investing in companies that are not publicly traded or listed on a stock exchange. This can also include the acquisition of public companies by a private investment fund or investor.
  • Private debt: Investing in companies in the form of debt as opposed to equity. Private debt is not typically financed by banks, nor traded or issued in an open market.
  • Hedge funds: Largely unregulated funds that can invest across a wide range of asset classes and instruments. These funds aim to ‘hedge’ risk and maximize profits regardless of which direction the market moves through long (buy) or short (sell) positions.
  • Real estate: The acquisition, financing, and ownership of real estate assets by private investment vehicles, funds, or firms. This includes residential, commercial, and industrial properties both at the time of original listing and when being sold between two parties afterwards.
  • Infrastructure: Investment in services and facilities considered essential to the economic development of a society. This includes energy, logistics, telecoms, transportation, utilities, and waste management.
  • Natural resources: Investment in the development, enhancement, or production of various types of natural resources. This includes agriculture, renewable energy, timberland, water, and metals.

In contrast to traditional markets, alternative assets are typically less liquid and less regulated.

Global Growth

According to Preqin, all alternative asset classes will see significant growth in global AUM. Here’s how the projections break down from 2020 to 2025:

 20202021P2022P2023P2024P2025PCAGR
Private equity4.4T$5.1T$5.9T$6.8T$7.9T$9.1T15.6%
Private debt$848B$945B$1.1T$1.2T$1.3T$1.5T11.4%
Hedge funds$3.6T$3.7T$3.8T$4.0T$4.1T$4.3T3.6%
Real estate$1.0T$1.1T$1.1T$1.2T$1.2T$1.2T3.4%
Infrastructure$639B$668B$697B$729B$761B$795B4.5%
Natural resources$211B$222B$233B$245B$258B$271B5.1%
Total$10.7T$11.7T$12.9T$14.1T$15.5T$17.2T9.8%

Private equity will grow the fastest, and will also see the highest growth in dollar terms. In fact, its proportion of alternative assets’ AUM is expected to rise from 41% in 2020 to 53% in 2025. Preqin predicts that this will be due to both strong performance and asset flows, with 79% of surveyed investors planning to increase their allocation to private equity.

Private debt is also expected to see strong growth. With greater risk appetite than banks, private debt funds could be active in emerging technologies such as pharmaceuticals and the remote working industry. These funds take on higher risk in anticipation of higher yield potential, an attractive proposition for investors amid low interest rates in many areas.

Similarly, investors will likely turn to real estate for its yield potential. Long-leased assets usually offer stable cash flows and indexed rents, making them one of the asset classes that may hedge inflation. However, the industry is projected to have the lowest compound annual growth rate, given the uncertainty facing office and retail spaces post COVID-19.

The Opportunities in Alternative Assets

Outside of investments such as liquid alternatives, alternative assets have typically only been accessible to institutional investors. However, recent regulatory changes by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) mean that private markets are opening up to individual investors if they meet certain criteria.

Alternative assets offer a number of compelling opportunities, including portfolio diversification, lower correlation with public markets, and potential outperformance. In fact, research has found that private equity was the best-performing asset class in a public pension portfolio, based on median annualized returns from 2010-2020.

According to Preqin’s projections, it appears investors are realizing this potential. While stocks and bonds will likely remain central to portfolios, alternative assets can help to broaden investors’ horizons.

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Markets in a Minute

The Recovering Financial Health of Americans

The economic recovery has not been even. We show the increase in Americans’ financial health by race, income, gender, and location.

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Financial Health

This infographic is available as a poster.

The Recovering Financial Health of Americans

Did you spend less and save more due to the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, you’re not alone.

Overall, the percent of Americans with strong financial health increased by 2% from 2020-2021. This was largely due to the aforementioned behavioral changes, along with government interventions like stimulus payments that helped Americans pay off their debt.

However, the economic recovery has not been even for everyone. This Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments looks at which Americans have seen the biggest increase in their financial health, broken down by race, household income, gender, and location.

What is Financial Health?

Before we dive into the results, let’s take a look at what financial health means. It is measured using eight indicators within four broad categories:

  • Spend: Spend less than income and pay bills on time
  • Save: Have sufficient liquid savings and long-term savings
  • Borrow: Have manageable debt and a prime credit score
  • Plan: Have appropriate insurance and plan ahead financially

People are considered to be financially healthy when they have strong scores across all of the above indicators.

Changes in Financial Health

In order to measure financial health, the Financial Health Network surveyed 6,403 respondents in April and May 2021. Below are the changes in financially healthy people, measured in percentage points (p.p.), from 2020-2021. Statistically significant responses, where the authors are 95% confident that the observed results are real and not an error caused by randomness, are marked with an asterisk.

GroupChange in Financially Healthy People (2020-2021)
Overall2 p.p*
Black9 p.p.*
Latinx4 p.p.*
Asian American11 p.p.*
White0 p.p.
< $30,000 Household income2 p.p.*
$30,000 - $59,999 Household income2 p.p.
$60,000 - $99,999 Household income2 p.p.
> $100,000 Household income1 p.p.
Men4 p.p.*
Women1 p.p.
Northeast2 p.p.
Midwest3 p.p.
South5 p.p.*
West-1 p.p.

With an 11 percentage point jump, Asian Americans saw the biggest increase and are now the most financially healthy of any race. The increase was due to an absence in major employment disruptions, growth in employment, and generous unemployment benefits for those who did experience disruptions.

In addition, the proportion of Black people considered financially healthy nearly doubled due to two primary factors: receipt of stimulus payments and reduced spending. This helped Black families to build up savings, pay bills on time, and improve their credit scores.

While men experienced an increase in financial health, women were disproportionately affected by employment disruptions and childcare responsibilities. For instance, women were more than twice as likely as men not to work due to childcare responsibilities in 2021. Meanwhile, men reported bigger improvements in their liquid and long-term savings than women.

People with a household income under $30,000 saw slight improvements in their financial health, primarily due to unemployment benefits and reduced spending. However, lower-income households saw a significant reduction in the “planning ahead financially” indicator, signifying this could be a temporary improvement.

A Current Snapshot

While it is primarily marginalized groups that saw the biggest improvements over the last year, large gaps in financial health remain. Here is the current percentage of people who are financially healthy for each group.

Financial Health

The starkest differences are by income level. People with a household income under $30,000 are nearly five times less likely to be financially healthy than those who have a household income over $100,000.

However, gaps occur across race, gender, and location as well:

  • The proportion of Black and Latinx people who are financially healthy is significantly lower than that of Asian Americans and White people.
  • Despite an increase in female breadwinners in recent years, women are much less likely than men to have strong financial health.
  • Of all regions, Americans living in the South are the least likely to be financially healthy.

At an aggregate level, only one-third of Americans are considered to be financially healthy.

A Continued Recovery?

While it appears that government relief efforts have helped traditionally marginalized groups, it remains unclear what will happen now that these programs are winding down. Not only that, large gaps in financial health still exist. The Financial Health Network recommends policies tailored to help close these gaps, such as universal child care and policies that reduce the disparities in educational opportunity.

Of course, government programs, macroeconomic conditions, and individual behaviors will all play a role in Americans’ financial health going forward. If you were fortunate enough to spend less during the pandemic, do you plan to continue saving more? Your actions could help you build a solid foundation to manage expenses, while also planning ahead for long-term needs.

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