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Understanding the Disconnect Between Consumers and the Stock Market

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Understanding the Disconnect Between Consumers and the Stock Market

The Disconnect Between Consumers and Stock Markets

Consumer sentiment indices are relatively accurate indicators for the outlook of an economy. They rise during periods of growth as consumers become more financially confident, and fall during recessions as consumers cut back on discretionary spending.

Since the direction of the overall economy also affects stock markets, measures of consumer sentiment have historically moved in tandem with major indices like the S&P 500. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, however, consumers and stock markets have become noticeably disjointed from one another.

To help us understand why this may be the case, this infographic charts the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment against the S&P 500, before diving into potential underlying factors for their divergence.

A Tale of Two Indices

Before we compare these two indices, it’s helpful to first understand how they’re comprised.

The Index of Consumer Sentiment

The University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment (ICS) is derived from a monthly survey of consumers that aims to get a snapshot of personal finances, business conditions, and buying conditions in the market.

The survey consists of five questions (paraphrased):

  • Are you better or worse off financially compared to a year ago?
  • Will you be better or worse off financially a year in the future?
  • Will business conditions during the next year be good, bad, or other?
  • Will business conditions over the next five years be good, bad, or other?
  • Is it a good time to make large purchases such as major household appliances?

A score for each of these questions is calculated based on the percent of favorable and nonfavorable replies. The scores are then aggregated to arrive at the final index value, relative to 6.8—the 1966 base period value.

The S&P 500

The S&P 500 is a market capitalization-weighted index of the 500 largest publicly traded U.S. companies. A company’s market capitalization is calculated as its current stock price multiplied by its total number of outstanding shares.

Market caps change over time, with movements determined by daily stock price fluctuations, the issuance of new stock, or the repurchase of existing shares (also known as share buybacks).

The COVID-19 Divergence

Throughout past market cycles, these two indices have displayed some degree of correlation.

During the bull market of the ‘90s, the S&P 500 generated an astonishing 417% return, and was accompanied by a 75% increase in consumer sentiment. Critically, both indices also peaked at roughly the same time. The ICS began to decline after reaching its record high of 112.0 in January 2000, while the S&P 500 began to falter in August that same year.

Fast forwarding to 2020, we can see that these indices have responded quite differently during the pandemic so far:

IndexJan 2020 Feb 2020 Mar 2020 Apr 2020 May 2020 June 2020 July 17, 2020 
ICS Value99.810189.171.872.378.173.2
ICS YTD0.5%1.7%-10.3%-27.7%-27.2%-21.4%-26.3%
S&P 500 Value3225.52954.22584.62912.43044.33100.33224.7
S&P 500 YTD-0.2%-8.6%-20.0%-9.9%-5.8%-4.0%-0.2%

All figures as of month end unless otherwise specified. Source: Yahoo Finance

The ICS has not yet recovered from its initial decline beginning in March, whereas the S&P 500 has seemingly bounced back during the same time frame.

Examining the Disconnect

Why are stock markets failing to recognize the hardships that consumers are feeling? Let’s examine two central factors behind this disconnect.

Reason 1: Tech’s Dominance of the S&P 500

Recall that a company’s weight in the S&P 500 is determined by its market cap. This means that certain sectors can form a larger part of the index than others. Here’s how each sector sizes up:

S&P 500 SectorIndex weight as of June 30, 2020 (%)
Information technology 27.5%
Health care14.6%
Consumer discretionary10.8%
Communication services10.8% 
Financials10.1%
Industrials8.0%
Consumer staples7.0%
Utilities3.1%
Real estate2.8%
Energy2.8%
Materials2.5%

Source: S&P Global

Based on this breakdown, we can see that the information technology (IT) sector accounts for over a quarter of the S&P 500. With a weighting of 27.5%, the sector alone is bigger than the bottom six combined (Industrials to Materials).

This inequality means the performance of the IT sector has a stronger relative impact on the index’s overall returns. Within IT, we can highlight the FAANGM subset of stocks, which include some of America’s biggest names in tech:

StockMarket Cap as of June 30, 2020 ($)
Apple$1.6 trillion
Microsoft$1.5 trillion
Amazon$1.4 trillion
Google$930 billion
Facebook$668 billion
Netflix$200 billion
S&P 500 average$53 billion

Source: Yahoo Finance

These companies have grown rapidly over the past decade, and continue to perform strongly during the pandemic. If this trend continues, the S&P 500 could skew even further towards the IT sector, and become less representative of America’s overall economy.

Reason 2: The U.S. Federal Reserve

Stock prices typically reflect a company’s future earnings prospects, meaning they are influenced, to a degree, by the outlook for the broader economy.

With an ongoing pandemic and steep decline in consumer sentiment, it’s reasonable to believe that many company prospects would look bleak. This is especially true for consumer cyclicals—companies like automobile manufacturers that rely on discretionary spending.

In a somewhat controversial move, the U.S. Federal Reserve has stepped in to counter these effects by creating the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility (SMCCF). This facility operates two programs which ensure businesses have access to funding during the pandemic.

Corporate Bond Purchase Program
The SMCCF is currently buying corporate bonds from an index of nearly 800 companies. Of the ten largest recipients of this program, five are categorized as consumer cyclical:

IssuerCategoryIndex Weight (%)
Toyota Motor Credit CorpConsumer cyclical1.74%
Volkswagen Group AmericaConsumer cyclical1.74%
Daimler Finance NA LLCConsumer cyclical1.72%
AT&T IncCommunications1.60%
Apple IncTechnology1.60%
Verizon CommunicationsCommunications1.60%
General ElectricCapital goods1.48%
Ford Motor Credit Co LLCConsumer cyclical1.34%
Comcast CorpCommunications1.32%
BMW US Capital LLCConsumer cyclical1.25%

Source: Investopedia

This program is intended to support the flow of credit, but its announcement in June also gave stock markets a boost in confidence. With the Fed directly supporting corporations, shareholders are being shielded from risks related to declining sales and bankruptcy.

By the end of June, the SMCCF had purchased $429 million in corporate bonds.

ETF Purchase Program
The SMCCF is also authorized to purchase corporate bond ETFs, a historic first for the Fed. The facility’s five largest ETF purchases as of June 18, 2020, are detailed below:

ETF Name Purchase size ($)ETF Description
iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF (LQD)$1.7 billionTracks an index composed of USD-denominated, investment grade corporate bonds.
Vanguard Short-Term Corporate Bond ETF (VCSH)$1.3 billionInvests primarily in investment grade corporate bonds, maintaining an average maturity of 1 to 5 years.
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Corporate Bond ETF (VCIT)$1.0 billionInvests primarily in investment grade corporate bonds, maintaining an average maturity of 5 to 10 years.
iShares Short-Term Corporate Bond ETF (IGSB)$608 millionTracks an index composed of USD-denominated investment-grade corporate bonds with maturities between 1 and 5 years.
SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond ETF (JNK)$412 millionSeeks to provide a diversified exposure to USD-denominated high yield corporate bonds.

Source: Investopedia

Although the SMCCF’s purchase of ETFs outsize those of corporate bonds, the Fed has signaled its intention to make direct bond purchases its primary focus going forward.

Will Markets and Consumers Reconnect Anytime Soon?

It’s hard to see the S&P 500 moving towards a more balanced sector composition in the near future. America’s big tech stocks have been resilient during the pandemic, with some even reaching new highs.

The Fed also remains committed to providing corporations with credit, thereby enabling them to “borrow” their way out of the pandemic. These commitments have propped up stock markets by reducing bankruptcy risk and potentially speeding up the economic recovery.

Consumer sentiment, on the other hand, has yet to show signs of recovery. Surveys released in early July may shed some light on why—63% of Americans believe it will take a year or more for the economy to fully recover, while 82% are hoping for an extension of COVID-19 relief programs.

With both sides moving in opposite directions, it’s possible the disconnect could grow even larger before it starts to shrink.

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Markets

How the S&P 500 Performed During Major Market Crashes

How does the COVID-19 market crash compare to previous financial crises? We navigate different contextual factors impacting crashes.

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How the S&P 500 Performed During Major Market Crashes

Like spectacular market peaks, market crashes have been a persistent feature of the S&P 500 throughout time.

Still, the forces underpinning each rise and fall are often less clear. Take the COVID-19 crash, for example. Despite lagging economic growth and historic unemployment levels, the S&P 500 bounced back 47% in just five months, in a stunning reversal.

Drawing data from Macrotrends, the above infographic compares six historic market crashes—examining the length of their recoveries and the contextual factors influencing their durations.

The Big Picture

How does the current COVID-19 crash of 2020 stack up against previous market crashes?

TitleStart — End DateDuration (Trading Days)% Drop
Black Tuesday / Great Crash*Sep 16, 1929 — Sept 22, 1954300 months (7,256 days)-86%
Nixon Shock / OPEC Oil EmbargoJan 11, 1973 — Jul 17, 198090 months (1,899 days)-48%
Black Monday**Oct 13, 1987 — May 15, 198919 months (402 days)-29%
Dot Com BubbleMar 24, 2000 — May 30, 200786 months (1,808 days)-49%
Global Financial CrisisOct 9, 2007 — Mar 28, 201365 months (1,379 days)-57%
COVID-19 Crash***Feb 19, 2020 — Ongoing5 months+ (117+ days)-34%

Price returns, based on nominal prices
*Black Tuesday occurred about a month after the market peak on Oct 29, 1929
**The market hit a peak on Oct 13th, prior to Black Monday on Oct 19,1987
***As of market close Aug 4, 2020

By far, the longest recovery of this list followed the devastation of Black Tuesday, while the shortest was Black Monday of 1987—where it took 19 months for the market to fully recover.

Let’s take a closer look at each market crash to navigate the economic climate at the time.

After the Fall

What were some factors that can help provide context into the crash?

1929: Black Tuesday / Great Crash

Following Black Tuesday in 1929, the U.S. stock market took 7,256 days—equal to about 25 years—to fully recover from peak to peak. In response to the market crisis, a coalition of banks bought blocks of shares, but with negligible effects. In turn, investors fled the market.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Board rose the discount lending rate to 6%. As a result, borrowing costs climbed for consumers, businesses, and the central banks themselves. The tightening of rates led to unintended consequences, with the economy capitulating into the Great Depression. Of course, factors that contributed to its prolonged recovery have been debated, but these are just a few of the actions that had implications at the time.

1973: Nixon Shock / OPEC Oil Embargo

The Nixon Shock corresponded with a series of economic measures in response to high inflation. Soaring inflation devastated stocks, consuming real returns on capital. Around the same time, the oil embargo also occurred, with OPEC member countries halting oil exports to the U.S. and its allies, causing a severe spike in oil prices. It took seven years for the S&P 500 to return to its previous peak.

1987: Black Monday

While the exact cause of the 1987 crash has been debated, key factors include both the advent of computerized trading systems and overvalued markets.

To curtail the impact of the crash, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan aggressively slashed interest rates, repeatedly promising to take great lengths to stabilize the market. The S&P took under two years to recover.

2000: Dot Com Bubble

To curb the stratospheric rise of U.S. tech stocks, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates five times in eight months, sending the markets into a tailspin. Virtually $5 trillion in market value evaporated.

However, a number of well-known companies survived, including eBay and Amazon. At the time, Amazon’s stock price cratered from $107 to $11 while eBay lost 75% of its market value. Meanwhile, a number of Dot Com flops included Pets.com, WorldCom, and FreeInternet.com.

2007: Global Financial Crisis

Relaxed credit policies, the proliferation of subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, and commercial mortgage-backed securities were all factors behind the market turmoil of 2007. As banks carved out risky loans packaged in opaque tranches of debt, risk in the market accelerated.

Similar to 1987, the Federal Reserve initiated a number of rescue actions. Interest rates were brought down to historical levels and $498 billion in bailouts were injected into the financial system. Crisis-related bailouts extended to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the Federal Housing Administration, and others.

2020: COVID-19 Crash

In 2020, historic fiscal stimulus measures along with trillions in Fed financing have factored heavily in its swift reversal. The result has been one of the steepest rallies in S&P 500 history.

At the same time, the economy is mirroring Great Depression-level unemployment numbers, reaching 14.7% in April 2020. In short, this starkly exposes the sharp disconnect between the markets and broader economy.

Bearing Witness

History offers many lessons, and in this case, a view into the shape of a post-coronavirus market recovery.

Although the stock market is likely rallying off Fed liquidity, investor optimism, and the promise of potential vaccines, it’s interesting to note that the trajectory of this crash in some ways resembles the initial rebound shown during the Great Depression—which means we may not be out of the woods quite yet.

As the S&P 500 edges 2% shy of its February peak, could the market post a hastened recovery—or is a protracted downturn in the cards?

This graphic has been inspired by this Reddit post.

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Ranked: The Best and Worst Pension Plans, by Country

As the global population ages, pension reform is more important than ever. Here’s a breakdown of how key countries rank in terms of pension plans.

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Ranked: Countries with the Best and Worst Pension Plans

The global population is aging—by 2050, one in six people will be over the age of 65.

As our aging population nears retirement and gets closer to cashing in their pensions, countries need to ensure their pension systems can withstand the extra strain.

This graphic uses data from the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index (MMGPI) to showcase which countries are best equipped to support their older citizens, and which ones aren’t.

The Breakdown

Each country’s pension system has been shaped by its own economic and historical context. This makes it difficult to draw precise comparisons between countries—yet there are certain universal elements that typically lead to adequate and stable support for older citizens.

MMGPI organized these universal elements into three sub-indexes:

  • Adequacy: The base-level of income, as well as the design of a region’s private pension system.
  • Sustainability: The state pension age, the level of advanced funding from government, and the level of government debt.
  • Integrity: Regulations and governance put in place to protect plan members.

These three measures were used to rank the pension system of 37 different countries, representing over 63% of the world’s population.

Here’s how each country ranked:

CountryOverall ValueAdequacySustainabilityIntegrity
Argentina39.543.131.944.4
Australia75.370.373.585.7
Austria53.968.222.974.4
Brazil55.971.827.769.8
Canada69.27061.878.2
Chile68.759.471.779.2
China48.760.536.746.5
Colombia58.461.44670.8
Denmark80.377.58282.2
Finland73.673.260.792.3
France60.279.14156.8
Germany66.178.344.976.4
Hong Kong61.954.554.586.9
India45.839.944.956.3
Indonesia52.246.747.667.5
Ireland67.381.544.676.3
Italy52.267.41974.5
Japan48.354.632.260.8
Korea49.847.552.649.6
Malaysia60.650.560.576.9
Mexico45.337.557.141.3
Netherlands8178.578.388.9
New Zealand70.170.961.580.7
Norway71.271.656.890.6
Peru58.56052.464.7
Philippines43.73955.534.7
Poland57.462.545.366
Saudi Arabia57.159.650.562.2
Singapore70.873.859.781.4
South Africa52.642.34678.4
Spain54.77026.969.1
Sweden72.367.57280.2
Switzerland66.757.665.483
Thailand39.435.838.846.1
Turkey42.242.627.162.8
UK64.46055.384
U.S.60.658.862.960.4

The Importance of Sustainability

While all three sub-indexes are important to consider when ranking a country’s pension system, sustainability is particularly significant in the modern context. This is because our global population is increasingly skewing older, meaning an influx of people will soon be cashing in their retirement funds. As a consequence, countries need to ensure their pension systems are sustainable over the long-term.

There are several factors that affect a pension system’s sustainability, including a region’s private pension system, the state pension age, and the balance between workers and retirees.

The country with the most sustainable pension system is Denmark. Not only does the country have a strong basic pension plan—it also has a mandatory occupational scheme, which means employers are obligated by law to provide pension plans for their employees.

Adequacy versus Sustainability

Several countries scored high on adequacy but ranked low when it came to sustainability. Here’s a comparison of both measures, and how each country scored:

Ireland took first place for adequacy, but scored relatively low on the sustainability front at 27th place. This can be partly explained by Ireland’s low level of occupational coverage. The country also has a rapidly aging population, which skews the ratio of workers to retirees. By 2050, Ireland’s worker to retiree ratio is estimated to go from 5:1 to 2:1.

Similar to Ireland, Spain ranks high in adequacy but places extremely low in sustainability.

There are several possible explanations for this—while occupational pension schemes exist, they are optional and participation is low. Spain also has a low fertility rate, which means their worker-to-retiree ratio is expected to decrease.

Steps Towards a Better System

All countries have room for improvement—even the highest-ranking ones. Some general recommendations from MMGPI on how to build a better pension system include:

  • Increasing the age of retirement: Helps maintain a more balanced worker-to-retiree ratio.
  • Enforcing mandatory occupational schemes: Makes employers obligated to provide pension plans for their employees.
  • Limiting access to benefits: Prevents people from dipping into their savings preemptively, thus preserving funds until retirement.
  • Establishing strong pension assets to fund future liabilities: Ideally, these assets are more than 100% of a country’s GDP.
  • Pension systems across the globe are under an increasing amount of pressure. It’s time for countries to take a hard look at their pension systems to make sure they’re ready to support their aging population.

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