Thought exercise: What if the volatility on Wall Street really is telling us something important?
Repeat after me: The stock market is not the economy. The stock market is not the economy. The stock market is not the economy.
Why? For one thing, even drastic daily drops in the Dow can be misleading and are devilishly hard to interpret. As the legendary economist Paul Samuelson said, “The stock market has predicted nine of the past five recessions.” Volatility is more normal than the very calm increase we saw last year, especially with high-speed electronic trading. Also, 51 percent of U.S. households owned no stocks at all in 2016, not even through mutual funds. Less than 14 percent owned stocks directly.
Thus, even with selloffs Friday and Monday giving up all of the market’s gains for the year, the “real” economy is strong, with low unemployment, wages finally starting to rise, strong industrial production and a robust trade deficit testifying to Americans buying more (alas, though, saving less, but that’s a long-term trend).
So, the stock market is not the economy. Until it is.
If stocks fall far enough and stay there (look at percentage declines, not points), don’t expect the rich to suffer alone. Companies will increase cost cutting, including layoffs. Also, sometimes stock manias burst to reveal much deeper troubles with economic fundamentals. This famously happened in 1929. The great crash was not only driven by psychology and a rickety, unregulated, over-leveraged market, but also fears of the coming Smoot-Hawley tariff, a dangerous banking system and weakness in the farm belt.
This time, we’re nowhere near the late 1920s or even 2008. However, we have reasons to pay attention.
I’m paying most attention to Jay Powell’s Federal Reserve. It’s unprecedented for a successful sitting Fed chair to be denied a second term — until Donald Trump did that to Janet Yellen. Powell was not even a Fed governor when the Panic of 2008 hit and the central bank faced its most serious test since 1929-30.
Under Ben Bernanke and Yellen, the Fed passed that test and we avoided a second Great Depression. (Milton Friedman’s great contribution to economics was showing, along with colleague Anna Schwartz, how Fed missteps turned a contraction into a depression nearly nine decades ago.) Powell is completely untested. Trump thinks he’s getting a deregulator. Are we getting a man up to the task of forming a consensus on the central bank and operating independently from a president who famously demands loyalty?
The risks are more than a laissez-faire bubble going pop. Many post-World War II recessions were caused by the Fed tightening credit too much, too soon. When analysts talk about inflation worries, this is shorthand for concern that the Powell Fed will interpret wage increases and the goosing of the GOP tax cuts as overly inflationary and will slam on the brakes.
Other concerns: potential trade wars, potential real war with North Korea, the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and the destabilizing effects of those tax cuts. It’s impossible to tell. The market is made up of millions of decisions every hour of every trading day. Maybe the storm will pass. Maybe not. Greed and fear drive Wall Street, and as I write the two are wrestling for supremacy.
Today’s Econ Haiku:
Migrate to the Puget Sound
Spawn toxic profits