The divide between Wall Street and Main Street has grown sharply in recent weeks, amid the coronavirus pandemic and widespread civil unrest. To many, the market’s rise appeared as both cause and symptom of the widening gap between the country's haves and have-nots.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose by more than 400 points on Wednesday, with the S&P 500 now recovering a full 40 percent from its March lows. Yet millions of workers and small business owners are struggling to cope with the one-two punch of an economically devastating pandemic and unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police that have filled America’s TV screens and news feeds with images of burned police cars, smashed store windows and looting in cities across the country.
“The stock market represents the fortunes of the fortunate… consolidating their power over the economy,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “As long as they feel like the economy isn't going to be disrupted significantly by the riots, they’re not going to price that in the stock market,” he said.
“I think it’s just an assumption at this point that it will be isolated to a few cities or won't last long enough to have an impact, or it’s a function of some of the other things the markets already discounted in terms of economic weakness,” said Willie Delwiche, investment strategist at Baird.
The market’s plunge in March was broken by aggressive monetary and fiscal intervention from the Federal Reserve and the CARES Act, and it remains buoyed by those steps taken to prop up the financial system — a prospect that rubs some people the wrong way.
“It kind of makes me mad because we bailed them out in 2008. They’re only here because of what the government did,” said Chris Romal, a special-education aide in Rochester, New York. Meanwhile, she said, her and her husband’s retirement savings only recently recovered from that collapse. “We’d just gotten back from that 2008 financial crisis,” she said.
Small businesses are struggling with stay-at-home-mandated closures combined with protests and, in some cases, property damage from riots and looting. Romal expressed frustration that Wall Street isn’t doing more to help Main Streets across the country. That task, she said, seems to have been left to ordinary Americans, many of whom are facing financial insecurity themselves.
“We’ve just been supporting people. We make sure we do takeout on Friday nights to support any of the local restaurants that are doing it,” she said. “I don't know how we get these people back to work, I just don’t… It’s a very scary thing for these mom-and-pop stores,” she said.
Monetary policy acted as a shock absorber that cushioned the market’s fall, analysts said. “Investors know the Federal Reserve will do whatever it takes to keep the market from falling apart,” Zandi said. “That’s putting a floor under the market and driving the market higher.”
Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said the central bank’s clout on Main Street is limited in that it relies on banks.
“The rich are getting richer, and the rich have the money to invest."
“The only tools at the Fed’s disposal are to cut interest rates and provide liquidity. The problem is, they can't control where that liquidity goes, and some — probably a good chunk — of that money wound up finding its way into financial assets,” he said.
CNBC’s Jim Cramer put it bluntly on Monday, saying, “The market has no conscience.”
Observers said the one event that might puncture the market’s bubble of serenity would be if President Donald Trump made good on his threats to send American troops into cities. “The psychological impact of seeing a more robust police presence or military presence in cities, I think that would unnerve investors more than reassure them,” Delwiche said.
“If it results in something like martial law, military in the streets of major American cities, that might be enough to do it,” Zandi said. “That would panic people.”
Even retirement savers who are glad to see their portfolios rebound are uneasy. “The rich are getting richer, and the rich have the money to invest,” said Doug Hangliter, an IT professional in the Philadelphia-area suburbs who said he worried about the long-term ramifications that policies such as tax cuts have on accelerating income inequality.
“People are misunderstanding what’s going on in American politics,” he told NBC News. “I used to be ultra-conservative — survival of the fittest. I voted for Trump,” he said. “Now, with the income disparity, you need a little bit of socialism in his country, just to survive,” he said. “I’m willing to have my taxes raised if the money is used wisely.”