It was a good week for stock markets in the United States, but there was trouble in Asia.
U.S. stock markets rallied last week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, and Nasdaq Composite all gained more than 3 percent, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s.
Investors had plenty of fuel for optimism early in the week. On Sunday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell struck a positive tone during his 60 Minutes interview stating, “The big thing we have to avoid…is a second wave of the virus. But if we do, then the economy can continue to recover. We'll see GDP move back up after the very low numbers of this quarter. We'll see unemployment come down. But I think though it'll be a while before we really feel well recovered.”
On Monday, there was news early testing of a potential vaccine had delivered promising results, and the vaccine company’s stock shot higher. The report was tarnished when top executives sold shares the next day, and a respected medical website indicated the published results meant little, reported John Authers in Bloomberg Opinion.
Positive momentum slowed later in the week when China indicated it will impose national security laws on Hong Kong. Reshma Kapadia of Barron’s reported, “While the risks have ratcheted higher, it isn’t clear yet whether the new security laws will destroy Hong Kong’s ability to act as a financial center. What that could mean for investors will probably play out over the next couple of months.”
Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index closed down 5.6 percent, reported Financial Times (FT). That was the index’s worst one-day performance in almost five years.
China’s leadership also declined to set a gross domestic product (GDP) target for the first time ever. GDP is the value of all goods and services produced in a nation. The decision led to a decline in mainland China’s CSI 300 index of Shanghai and Shenzhen-listed stocks, reported FT.
Guidance Wealth will be closed Monday, May 25th in Observance of Memorial Day
America is reopening, state by state.
That’s welcome news for many businesses, but we’re far from business as usual. Last week’s economic news included unemployment hitting an 80-year high, a record drop in retail sales (-16.4 percent), and an unprecedented decline in industrial production (-11.2 percent).
Weak consumer demand is also a concern, according to Matthew Klein of Barron’s. “…The pandemic has lowered consumer demand much more than it has damaged productive capacity. It’s much easier to bring factories back online than it is to get customers back into shops and auto dealerships…Unless consumption rebounds quickly, the world will soon be faced with an unprecedented glut of goods that can’t be sold.”
Some households may be able to sustain or increase consumption because of generous unemployment benefits. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act increased unemployment benefits by $600 per week. The intent was to provide Americans, who were out of work because of the pandemic, with income equal to the national average salary of $970 per week, reported Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux of FiveThirtyEight.
As it turns out, about 68 percent of those filing for unemployment – teachers, construction workers, medical assistants, food service workers, and others – are receiving more money through unemployment than they did from employers.
An analysis conducted by economists at the University of Chicago, and cited by FiveThirtyEight, found, “…the estimated median replacement rate – the share of a worker’s original weekly salary that is being replaced by unemployment benefits – is 134 percent, or more than one-third above their original wage.”
In recent weeks, the number of unemployed workers has grown to about 36 million, according to CBS News. Unusually high unemployment combined with unusually high unemployment benefits may mean some Americans may have more money to spend than they might have had otherwise. The combination could improve demand for goods. It also could make it more difficult for employers to persuade employees to return to work.
Last week, major U.S. stock indices finished lower.
Guidance Wealth will be closed Monday, May 25th, in Observance of Memorial Day
The stock market is not the economy.
It’s an important point to remember when headlines marvel that U.S. stock markets are moving higher while the U.S. economy is contracting. Stock markets are not mindful of the present moment. They are forward-looking, reflecting expectations about what will happen in the months and years to come, explained Mark Hulbert in a MarketWatch opinion piece.
In the present moment, the pandemic-induced recession is producing some brutal economic statistics. Lisa Beilfuss of Barron’s reported the unemployment rate rose to 14.7 percent last week. One-in-five Americans was out of work, and household income might be down 10 percent for the first six months of 2020.
No one is expecting great things from the economy in 2020. The Conference Board forecasts the U.S. economy will contract between 3.6 percent and 7.4 percent this year. However, the economy’s poor showing doesn’t mean stock markets will decline. John Rekenthaler of Morningstar explained:
“…neither employment statistics nor GDP [Gross Domestic Product] growth directly affect equity prices. The primary drivers are instead two sets of expectations: 1) future earnings and 2) future interest rates, with the latter being used to discount the former.”
Let’s consider earnings. There’s not a lot to celebrate in 2020, but the outlook for 2021 is positive. John Butters of FactSet reported, “Looking at future quarters, analysts predict a (year-over-year) decline in earnings in the second quarter (-40.6 percent), third quarter (-23.0 percent), and fourth quarter (-11.4 percent) of 2020. However, they also project a return to earnings growth in Q1 2021 (12.2 percent).”
The Federal Reserve is doing all it can to keep interest rates low. However, one of its most potent tools, the fed funds rate, has already been cut to near zero. Rekenthaler wrote:
“Government intervention is the new and updated version of “The Fed Put”: the idea that the Federal Reserve could always support equity prices, whenever it desired, by cutting short-term interest rates. Those rates are currently at zero, so that game can no longer be played. But the Federal Reserve can continue its newer technique of buying bonds in the open marketplace and flooding the banks with liquidity, and Congress can pass new stimulus bills…Whether such activity will benefit investors more than workers remains to be seen. Thus far, it has.”
Last week, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index finished up 3.5 percent. The Dow Jones industrial Average gained 2.6 percent. The Nasdaq Composite rose almost 6 percent, putting it in positive territory year-to-date, according to Barron’s.
There are signs COVID-19 may be in retreat.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control reported, overall in the United States, for the week ending April 25 (officially week 17 of the coronavirus), the number of:
This is good news since some states are beginning to reopen.
Last week, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported on the early economic impact of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders, which were implemented to prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. The U.S. economy contracted 4.8 percent during the first quarter of 2020.
The contraction is expected to be more significant for the second quarter. FactSet estimates the U.S. economy will shrink 27.0 percent, quarter-to-quarter, and finish the year down 3.0 percent overall. That suggests a strong rebound in economic growth as the country gets back to work.
Despite the economic contraction, U.S. stocks finished April with the biggest monthly gain since 1987, reported Colby Smith and colleagues at Financial Times (FT). April’s gains were partly the result of fiscal and monetary support, according to FT. The publication cited a global markets strategist who, “…attributed [April’s] rally in part to the U.S. Congress and the Federal Reserve extending enormous support to the economy and financial markets in the form of relief packages and emergency lending measures.”
The Fed isn’t the only central bank providing unusual support in these uncertain times. The European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan also announced significant lending and bond buying programs last week, reported Dion Rabouin of Axios.