Wall Street bagged its best August in more than 30 years on Monday, a month that saw the three major U.S. indexes notch new milestones as investors looked past the pandemic and kept focus on positive economic markers.
Trading was mixed, with the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index slipping 0.2%, to 3,500.31, and the Dow Jones industrial average falling 0.8%, to 28,430.05. The broad S&P 500 index closed out the month 7% ahead for its best August since 1986. It set record highs the past six trading days.
Buoyed by high-performing tech companies, the Nasdaq composite index swelled 0.7%, to 11,775.46. It added 9.6% during the month.
Improving labor numbers and moves toward looser monetary policy by the Federal Reserve have fueled optimism on Wall Street, even as the wait continues for a coronavirus vaccine and full economic recovery. The three major U.S. indexes have erased all of their losses for the year, wiping the devastating plunge in stock prices triggered by the spread of the coronavirus in March and putting an end to the shortest bear market in U.S. history.
Stocks may have snapped back, but the labor market remains deeply scarred by the losses brought on by the pandemic. On Thursday, the Labor Department said another 1 million Americans filed jobless claims last week. Now, roughly 27 million are receiving some form of unemployment aid, as many of the temporary job losses turned permanent. Last week, several major companies announced layoffs, including Coca-Cola, Salesforce, American Airlines, Bed Bath & Beyond and MGM Resorts.
Investors are monitoring how the expiration of coronavirus-related aid, such as the $1,200 stimulus checks and $600 in enhanced weekly unemployment benefits, will cascade through the economy’s lower rungs. Hunger has hovered near record levels since the beginning of the pandemic and the end of the federal eviction moratorium has left many households in crisis, yet there are no new lifelines in sight for lower-income Americans.
“As some of the fiscal measures put in place begin to wear off, the need for additional fiscal stimulus only increases,” Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist for Allianz Investment Management, wrote in a note on Monday. “At the end of the day, the speed of the recovery rests in the hands of politicians as they wrangle over the details in the next round of fiscal stimulus spending.”
Wayne Wicker, chief investment officer at Vantagepoint Funds, said investors will generally be most concerned about how the economy is trending. If the picture shown by economic data continues to brighten, and companies do not see an impact on their bottom lines, then the markets will stay satisfied.
“Wall Street and Main Street have a very different perception of the future right now,” Wicker said.
For the roughly half of Americans who own stocks – especially the everyday investors who have their money largely tied to 401(k)s and other retirement funds – Wall Street’s roaring comeback has translated to swelling portfolios.
Fidelity, the nation’s largest provider of 401(k)s, reported earlier this month that the vast majority of employers have continued to offer matching contributions to their workplace retirement accounts during the pandemic, driving Americans to save. Workers themselves are plowing money into their retirement at record levels. Year-to-date contributions to individual retirement accounts have jumped more than 20% compared with last year, Fidelity said, with the average balance sitting at $111,500, a 13% increase from last quarter. Nearly 90% of 401(k) holders continued to save for their retirement, and almost 1 in 10 upped their contribution rate in the past three months.
The S&P 500 notched a record high seven times in August, surpassing the pre-coronavirus peak many times over. But the rebound has been hitched to the remarkable growth of the tech giants, whose gargantuan market valuations have given them outsize influence on Wall Street. Just six technology companies – Netflix, Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon and Apple – account for more than one-quarter of the S&P’s value. In fact, without them, the index would still be in negative territory.
The last day of August also marks the first day of trading for a newly reconfigured Dow. The index, which tracks 30 large publicly traded companies, has removed three stocks from its list and added three others. Oil giant ExxonMobil, pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and the aerospace and defense manufacturer Raytheon Technologies have left the Dow. In their place the index has added Salesforce, a cloud computing company; Amgen, a biotechnology firm; and Honeywell International, an aerospace and industrial manufacturer.
The Dow shake-up was designed to offset the impact of Apple splitting its stock, which would have diminished the technology sector’s representation in the index. With a new lineup, the Dow intended to reflect tech’s growing sway and market leadership in the country. The Dow is within a few percentage points of its record high of 29,551.42, set Feb. 12.
Monday was the first trading session to include Apple’s stock split. Tesla, another company whose stock price has surged this year, has also split its stock, which took affect in the morning.
August’s exuberance however, could open the door to a downturn, according to Ryan Detrick, chief market strategist for LPL Financial. Much uncertainty remains with the pandemic and the election, and either could deliver another shock to the markets during a historically tough month for stocks.
“Well, 2020 has laughed at many of these things, but be aware September is indeed the worst month of the year on average,” he said in a research note Monday, explaining September’s tendency for weak returns. “But what caught our attention was both September and October have a negative return during election years, with October the worst month of the year.”