Do you find it puzzling when a bleak economic report emerges from the press, only to be accompanied by a positive surge in the stock market? You’re not alone. The last few weeks have produced many examples of a stark contrast between stock market performance and economic indicators. So why the apparent disconnect?
Markets are forward-looking, meaning current stock prices reflect investors’ aggregate expectations for the future, while economic data primarily looks in the rearview mirror.
Market expectations and stock prices include anticipated economic developments and their potential impact on company cash flows, which are critical to a stock’s value. For example, if the market expects economic developments to weaken company cash flows, stock markets may decline well in advance of when we actually observe the impact on the company, as expectations are embedded in prices.
The subsequent direction of the stock market depends on how the economic outcome compares to expectations. If things aren’t as bad as expected, poor economic news can be greeted with a positive stock market reaction, as has happened recently.
Headlines like “Stocks surged on one of the unhappiest days in American economic history”1 have become relatively common in recent days. On May 8, it was announced that 20.5 million Americans had lost their jobs in April, yet all three major stock market indexes rose over 1.5%.
The dissonance tells us that the stock market had already anticipated similar unemployment numbers, or perhaps expected worse, and the market reacted positively now that some uncertainty dissipated. Market prices had responded to unemployment changes but in advance of them coming to fruition.
One can liken the disconnect to a dog walker and a dog—both travel in the same direction but may not be in lock-step. The dog walker can move at a measured pace, whereas the dog may run forward and back.
There is still much uncertainty in our immediate future. We don’t know whether the market will continue its upward climb or dip back to its lows. But we do know that markets aggregate and process vast sets of data every minute. By incorporating this information into market prices, public capital markets effectively become the best available leading macroeconomic indicator. We may feel that stock markets are ignoring bleak news when, in fact, they have projected it.
For more on markets and coronavirus, read Is Now the Time to Buy or Sell Stocks?
1Washington Post, May 8, 2020