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

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This infographic is available as a poster.

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

Charted: The Rise of Stock Buybacks Over 20 Years

Unlike the last two downturns, stock buybacks could hit a record $1.3T in 2022. We chart their growth over the last two decades.

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Stock Buybacks

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Chart: The Rise of Stock Buybacks Over 20 Years

Despite market turbulence, stock buybacks are on track to hit record levels by year-end.

Spurring this wave of buybacks are strong corporate cash flows⁠—sitting near $2 trillion—and a 1% excise tax on buybacks approaching in 2023. This signals a vote of confidence from corporations on their financial health even as a recession looms large.

In this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments, we chart the growth of buybacks over the last two decades and the implications for investors looking ahead.

How Stock Buybacks Work

In stock buybacks, corporations buy their own shares from existing shareholders. This reduces the number of shares in the market and boosts earnings per share. Often, this can increase share prices given the rise in earnings growth.

It was not until 1982 that share repurchases became legal, driving wider usage among corporations as a capital allocation tool.

By comparison, dividends are another common form of distributing capital back to shareholders.

Dividends are bound by strict policies and do not offer the same tax advantages and flexibility as buybacks. While dividends are taxed as income, buybacks are taxed as capital gains—making them a preferential choice for investors. Given these advantages, stock buybacks have outpaced dividends over the last two decades.

In fact, in the third quarter of 2022, an estimated one in five companies in the S&P 500 Index conducted buybacks that in turn increased their earnings per share by at least 4% year-over-year.

Stock Buyback Trends

As the below table shows, stock buybacks in the S&P 500 Index outnumber dividends by about double in 2022:

YearS&P 500 Stock BuybacksS&P 500 Dividends
2022*$1.00T$0.54T
2021$0.88T$0.51T
2020$0.52T$0.48T
2019$0.73T$0.49T
2018$0.81T$0.46T

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices (Sep 2022). *For the 12-months ending June 2022.

However, stock buybacks fluctuate more often than dividends since corporations can turn them on or off. For example, in 2020, buybacks sharply declined given growing financial uncertainty. Meanwhile, companies issued dividends at a steady pace.

In this way, when share prices decline, buybacks typically decrease.

Yet unlike the last two recessions in 2008 and 2020, buybacks have shown notable strength in 2022 in spite of falling share prices.

What Are the Top Sectors for Stock Buybacks?

We can see in the table below that the biggest share repurchasers are in the tech sector, with $2.1 trillion in buybacks since 2009.

SectorCumulative Buybacks Since 2009Q2 Buybacks
Information Technology$2,060.4B$72.0B
Financials$1,265.0B$21.2B
Consumer Discretionary $941.7B$27.6B
Health Care$929.1B$17.2B
Industrials$717.6B$17.4B
Consumer Staples$548.1B$10.7B
Communication Services$369.6B$29.4B
Energy$337.9B$13.4B
Materials$187.0B$8.7B
Utilities $26.8B$0.5B
Real Estate$16.9B$1.1B
Total$7,382.6B$219.6B

Source: Yardeni Research (Nov 2022). Represents stock buybacks for S&P 500 Index sectors.

On the other hand, utilities and other capital-intensive sectors tend to spend less on buybacks in contrast to asset-light sectors such as tech and financials.

What is also characteristic to share buybacks is their concentration. As we have seen in the second quarter this year, the top 20% of buybacks make up 47% of all repurchases across the S&P 500 Index.

New Tax On Stock Buybacks

Stock buybacks have drawn criticism for using cash to benefit shareholders instead of boosting production or improving the quality of the business.

In response, beginning in 2023, the Inflation Reduction Act puts a 1% excise tax on buybacks.

What this means is that public companies based in the U.S. must now pay a 1% tax on share repurchases, which could result in millions of additional expenses. Given this new tax rule, corporations may be accelerating buybacks ahead of year-end.

Implications for Investors

As stock buybacks have grown in prominence, it’s worth noting that not all are equal.

When a buyback aligns with a company’s long-term plan, and the company can cover their operational expenses, it can support the stability and growth of the company. When stock prices are volatile, companies can repurchase shares when they are undervalued.

By contrast, if a company takes on excess leverage in order to buyback shares, it can contribute to lower financial resilience. When a company uses a buyback to opportunistically repurchase shares, the boost in share prices may be short-lived.

In addition, it could also prevent capital from being directed to growth initiatives. In this way, it’s important to consider stock buybacks on a case-by-case basis.

With this in mind, investors can look to companies with healthy balance sheets that can weather economic storms. Here, companies that illustrate price discipline and buy back shares at a discount may help build long-term value, providing benefits to investors who stay the course.

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Mapped: Global Energy Prices, by Country in 2022

Energy prices have been extremely volatile in 2022. Which countries are seeing the highest prices in the world?

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Energy Prices

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Mapped: Global Energy Prices, by Country in 2022

For some countries, energy prices hit historic levels in 2022.

Gasoline, electricity, and natural gas prices skyrocketed as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ruptured global energy supply chains. Households and businesses are facing higher energy bills amid extreme price volatility. Uncertainty surrounding the war looms large, and winter heating costs are projected to soar.

Given the global consequences of the energy crisis, this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments shows the price of energy for households by country.

1. Global Energy Prices: Gasoline

Which countries and regions pay the most for a gallon of gas?

RankCountry/ RegionGasoline Prices
(USD per Gallon)
1🇭🇰 Hong Kong$11.1
2🇨🇫 Central African Republic$8.6
3🇮🇸 Iceland$8.5
4🇳🇴 Norway$8.1
5🇧🇧 Barbados$7.8
6🇩🇰 Denmark$7.7
7🇬🇷 Greece$7.6
8🇫🇮 Finland$7.6
9🇳🇱 Netherlands$7.6
10🇧🇪 Belgium$7.4
11🇬🇧 United Kingdom$7.2
12🇪🇪 Estonia$7.2
13🇨🇭 Switzerland$7.2
14🇸🇬 Singapore$7.2
15🇸🇪 Sweden$7.1
16🇸🇨 Seychelles$7.1
17🇮🇱 Israel$7.0
18🇩🇪 Germany$7.0
19🇺🇾 Uruguay$7.0
20🇼🇫 Wallis and Futuna$7.0
21🇱🇮 Liechtenstein$6.9
22🇮🇪 Ireland$6.8
23🇵🇹 Portugal$6.8
24🇱🇻 Latvia$6.7
25🇧🇿 Belize$6.7
26🇦🇱 Albania$6.6
27🇦🇹 Austria$6.6
28🇲🇨 Monaco$6.6
29🇪🇸 Spain$6.6
30🇨🇿 Czech Republic$6.5
31🇲🇼 Malawi$6.5
32🇰🇾 Cayman Islands$6.4
33🇸🇰 Slovakia$6.4
34🇲🇺 Mauritius$6.3
35🇱🇺 Luxembourg$6.3
36🇱🇹 Lithuania$6.3
37🇦🇩 Andorra$6.3
38🇮🇹 Italy$6.3
39🇺🇬 Uganda$6.2
40🇭🇺 Hungary$6.2
41🇯🇴 Jordan$6.2
42🇸🇾 Syria$6.1
43🇫🇷 France$6.0
44🇧🇮 Burundi$6.0
45🇧🇸 Bahamas$6.0
46🇳🇿 New Zealand$5.8
47🇸🇲 San Marino$5.8
48🇭🇷 Croatia$5.8
49🇷🇴 Romania$5.7
50🇾🇹 Mayotte$5.7
51🇷🇼 Rwanda$5.7
52🇿🇲 Zambia$5.7
53🇷🇸 Serbia$5.7
54🇱🇦 Laos$5.6
55🇲🇳 Mongolia$5.6
56🇰🇪 Kenya$5.6
57🇨🇾 Cyprus$5.6
58🇯🇲 Jamaica$5.5
59🇲🇰 Northern Macedonia$5.5
60🇨🇱 Chile$5.5
61🇧🇦 Bosnia$5.5
62🇱🇨 Saint Lucia$5.5
63🇵🇱 Poland$5.4
64🇩🇴 Dominican Republic$5.4
65🇨🇦 Canada$5.4
66🇲🇦 Morocco$5.4
67🇦🇼 Aruba$5.4
68🇸🇮 Slovenia$5.4
69🇧🇬 Bulgaria$5.3
70🇵🇪 Peru$5.3
71🇱🇰 Sri Lanka$5.3
72🇨🇷 Costa Rica$5.2
73🇲🇬 Madagascar$5.2
74🇬🇳 Guinea$5.2
75🇳🇵 Nepal$5.2
76🇲🇿 Mozambique$5.2
77🇳🇮 Nicaragua$5.2
78🇲🇱 Mali$5.1
79🇸🇳 Senegal$5.1
80🇺🇦 Ukraine$5.2
81🇩🇲 Dominica$5.0
82🇲🇪 Montenegro$5.0
83🇲🇹 Malta$5.0
84🇲🇩 Moldova$5.0
85🇨🇩 DR Congo$5.0
86🇨🇼 Curacao$5.0
87🇨🇻 Cape Verde$4.9
88🇧🇩 Bangladesh$4.9
89🇱🇷 Liberia$4.9
90🇰🇭 Cambodia$4.8
91🇮🇳 India$4.8
92🇨🇺 Cuba$4.8
93🇭🇳 Honduras$4.7
94🇬🇪 Georgia$4.7
95🇿🇦 South Africa$4.7
96🇹🇿 Tanzania$4.7
97🇫🇯 Fiji$4.7
98🇨🇳 China$4.7
99🇲🇽 Mexico$4.6
100🇬🇹 Guatemala$4.6

Source: GlobalPetrolPrices.com. As of October 31, 2022. Represents average household prices.

At an average $11.1 USD per gallon, households in Hong Kong pay the highest for gasoline in the world—more than double the global average. Both high gas taxes and steep land costs are primary factors behind high gas prices.

Like Hong Kong, the Central African Republic has high gas costs, at $8.6 USD per gallon. As a net importer of gasoline, the country has faced increased price pressures since the war in Ukraine.

Households in Iceland, Norway, and Denmark face the highest gasoline costs in Europe. Overall, Europe has seen inflation hit 10% in September, driven by the energy crisis.

2. Global Energy Prices: Electricity

Extreme volatility is also being seen in electricity prices.

The majority of the highest household electricity prices are in Europe, where Denmark, Germany, and Belgium’s prices are about double that of France and Greece. For perspective, electricity prices in many countries in Europe are more than twice or three times the global average of $0.14 USD per kilowatt-hour.

Over the first quarter of 2022, household electricity prices in the European Union jumped 32% compared to the year before.

RankCountry/ RegionElectricity Prices
(kWh, USD)
1🇩🇰 Denmark$0.46
2🇩🇪 Germany$0.44
3🇧🇪 Belgium$0.41
4🇧🇲 Bermuda$0.40
5🇰🇾 Cayman Islands$0.35
6🇯🇲 Jamaica$0.34
7🇬🇧 United Kingdom$0.32
8🇪🇸 Spain$0.32
9🇳🇱 Netherlands$0.32
10🇧🇧 Barbados$0.32
11🇪🇪 Estonia$0.32
12🇱🇹 Lithuania$0.31
13🇦🇹 Austria$0.31
14🇮🇹 Italy$0.30
15🇨🇿 Czech Republic$0.29
16🇨🇻 Cape Verde$0.28
17🇮🇪 Ireland$0.28
18🇸🇪 Sweden$0.27
19🇧🇸 Bahamas$0.26
20🇬🇹 Guatemala$0.26
21🇱🇮 Liechtenstein$0.26
22🇨🇾 Cyprus$0.25
23🇷🇼 Rwanda$0.25
24🇭🇳 Honduras$0.24
25🇺🇾 Uruguay$0.24
26🇵🇹 Portugal$0.24
27🇸🇻 El Salvador$0.23
28🇱🇻 Latvia$0.22
29🇫🇮 Finland$0.22
30🇱🇺 Luxembourg$0.22
31🇧🇿 Belize$0.22
32🇯🇵 Japan$0.22
33🇨🇭 Switzerland$0.22
34🇵🇪 Peru$0.21
35🇰🇪 Kenya$0.21
36🇦🇺 Australia$0.21
37🇧🇷 Brazil$0.20
38🇲🇱 Mali$0.20
39🇸🇬 Singapore$0.19
40🇷🇴 Romania$0.19
41🇧🇫 Burkina Faso$0.19
42🇸🇮 Slovenia$0.19
43🇬🇦 Gabon$0.19
44🇸🇰 Slovakia$0.19
45🇦🇼 Aruba$0.19
46🇬🇷 Greece$0.19
47🇫🇷 France$0.18
48🇳🇿 New Zealand$0.18
49🇹🇬 Togo$0.18
50🇳🇮 Nicaragua$0.17
51🇻🇪 Venezuela$0.17
52🇵🇦 Panama$0.17
53🇵🇭 Philippines$0.17
54🇵🇱 Poland$0.17
55🇮🇱 Israel$0.16
56🇺🇲 U.S.$0.16
57🇺🇬 Uganda$0.16
58🇭🇰 Hong Kong$0.16
59🇸🇳 Senegal$0.16
60🇲🇴 Macao$0.15
61🇨🇱 Chile$0.15
62🇰🇭 Cambodia$0.15
63🇿🇦 South Africa$0.14
64🇲🇺 Mauritius$0.14
65🇲🇬 Madagascar$0.14
66🇭🇷 Croatia$0.14
67🇮🇸 Iceland$0.14
68🇳🇴 Norway$0.13
69🇲🇹 Malta$0.13
70🇲🇿 Mozambique$0.13
71🇨🇴 Colombia$0.13
72🇧🇬 Bulgaria$0.12
73🇲🇻 Maldives$0.12
74🇨🇷 Costa Rica$0.12
75🇨🇦 Canada$0.11
76🇲🇼 Malawi$0.11
77🇨🇮 Ivory Coast$0.11
78🇳🇦 Namibia$0.11
79🇲🇦 Morocco$0.11
80🇹🇭 Thailand$0.10
81🇦🇲 Armenia$0.10
82🇯🇴 Jordan$0.10
83🇹🇿 Tanzania$0.10
84🇸🇿 Swaziland$0.10
85🇪🇨 Ecuador$0.10
86🇧🇼 Botswana$0.10
87🇩🇴 Dominican Republic$0.10
88🇲🇰 Northern Macedonia$0.10
89🇦🇱 Albania$0.10
90🇱🇸 Lesotho$0.09
91🇸🇱 Sierra Leone$0.09
92🇮🇩 Indonesia$0.09
93🇧🇾 Belarus$0.09
94🇭🇺 Hungary$0.09
95🇧🇦 Bosnia & Herzegovina$0.09
96🇹🇼 Taiwan$0.09
97🇰🇷 South Korea$0.09
98🇲🇽 Mexico$0.09
99🇷🇸 Serbia$0.09
100🇨🇩 DR Congo$0.08

Source: GlobalPetrolPrices.com. As of March 31, 2022. Represents average household prices.

In the U.S., consumer electricity prices have increased nearly 16% annually compared to September last year, the highest increase in over four decades, fueling higher inflation.

However, households are more sheltered from the impact of Russian supply disruptions due to the U.S. being a net exporter of energy.

3. Global Energy Prices: Natural Gas

Eight of the 10 highest natural gas prices globally fall in Europe, with the Netherlands at the top. Overall, European natural gas prices have spiked sixfold in a year since the invasion of Ukraine.

RankCountry/ RegionNatural Gas Prices
(kWh, USD)
1🇳🇱 Netherlands$0.41
2🇸🇪 Sweden$0.24
3🇩🇪 Germany$0.21
4🇧🇷 Brazil$0.20
5🇩🇰 Denmark$0.19
6🇪🇸 Spain$0.17
7🇮🇹 Italy$0.16
8🇦🇹 Austria$0.16
9🇸🇬 Singapore$0.15
10🇧🇪 Belgium$0.15
11🇭🇰 Hong Kong$0.14
12🇨🇿 Czech Republic$0.14
13🇬🇷 Greece$0.12
14🇫🇷 France$0.12
15🇯🇵 Japan$0.11
16🇬🇧 United Kingdom$0.10
17🇨🇭 Switzerland$0.10
18🇨🇱 Chile$0.10
19🇵🇹 Portugal$0.09
20🇧🇧 Barbados$0.09
21🇵🇱 Poland$0.09
22🇧🇬 Bulgaria$0.09
23🇮🇪 Ireland$0.08
24🇦🇺 Australia$0.07
25🇲🇽 Mexico$0.07
26🇳🇿 New Zealand$0.06
27🇸🇰 Slovakia$0.06
28🇺🇲 U.S.$0.05
29🇰🇷 South Korea$0.04
30🇨🇴 Colombia$0.04
31🇨🇦 Canada$0.03
32🇷🇸 Serbia$0.03
33🇹🇼 Taiwan$0.03
34🇺🇦 Ukraine$0.03
35🇲🇾 Malaysia$0.03
36🇭🇺 Hungary$0.03
37🇹🇳 Tunisia$0.02
38🇦🇿 Azerbaijan$0.01
39🇧🇭 Bahrain$0.01
40🇧🇩 Bangladesh$0.01
41🇹🇷 Turkey$0.01
42🇷🇺 Russia$0.01
43🇦🇷 Argentina$0.01
44🇧🇾 Belarus$0.01
45🇩🇿 Algeria$0.003
46🇮🇷 Iran$0.001

Source: GlobalPetrolPrices.com. As of March 31, 2022. Represents average household prices.

The good news is that the fall season has been relatively warm, which has helped European natural gas demand drop 22% in October compared to last year. This helps reduce the risk of gas shortages transpiring later in the winter.

Outside of Europe, Brazil has the fourth highest natural gas prices globally, despite producing about half domestically. High costs of cooking gas have been especially challenging for low-income families, which became a key political issue in the run-up to the presidential election in October.

Meanwhile, Singapore has the highest natural gas prices in Asia as the majority is imported via tankers or pipelines, leaving the country vulnerable to price shocks.

Increasing Competition

By December, all seaborne crude oil shipments from Russia to Europe will come to a halt, likely pushing up gasoline prices into the winter and 2023.

Concerningly, analysis from the EIA shows that European natural gas storage capacities could sink to 20% by February if Russia completely shuts off its supply and demand is not reduced.

As Europe seeks out alternatives to Russian energy, higher demand could increase global competition for fuel sources, driving up prices for energy in the coming months ahead.

Still, there is some room for optimism: the World Bank projects energy prices will decline 11% in 2023 after the 60% rise seen after the war in Ukraine in 2022.

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