America’s stock market has swiftly recovered from the pandemic. Sophisticated investors don’t think the real economy will do the same.
Just 17% of fund managers expect a rapid V-shaped economic recovery, according to a Bank of America survey released Tuesday.
Far more (31%) anticipate a gradual U-shaped recovery. Worse, the Bank of America survey showed that 37% of fund managers expect a double-dip recession via a W-shaped recovery.
The findings are yet another reminder that the stock market is not the economy. Wall Street may have catapulted back to record highs at lightning speed, but there is no guarantee Main Street will.
The fact that the S&P 500 recovered its pandemic losses is more of a reflection of the unprecedented steps taken by central bankers than the strength of the real economy. By slashing interest rates to zero and buying trillions of dollars of bonds, the Federal Reserve has left investors with almost no choice but to bet on risky stocks.
The S&P 500, home to some of America’s richest and most powerful companies, has spiked more than 50% since the March 23 lows. But smaller companies, which are less suited to survive the pandemic, have lagged behind. The small-cap Russell 2000 is still down 10% below its August 2018 record high.
“Markets are still skeptical about the durability of the economic recovery,” Solita Marcelli, UBS Global Wealth Management’s Americas CIO, wrote in a note to clients Tuesday.
Is the rally overdone?
That’s why 57% of fund managers surveyed by Bank of America want companies to focus on slashing debt. Just 30% are pushing companies to ramp up business investment. Tellingly, very few fund managers want companies to return cash to shareholders through buybacks and dividends.
The economic concerns revealed in the fund manager survey echo what America’s leading CEOs are saying.
Just 9% of US CEOs anticipate a V-shaped recovery, according to a Conference Board survey released in late July. More than twice as many (23%) expect a double-dip through a W-shaped recovery.
Some investors worry the remarkable recovery on Wall Street may be overdone.
The percentage of fund managers saying an equal weighted portfolio of stocks, bonds and gold is overvalued reached the highest level since 2008, according to Bank of America.
And yet there were silver linings in the survey.
Seventy-nine percent of fund managers expect the economy will strengthen, the highest since late 2009 during the depths of the Great Recession. And more fund managers believe the stock market is in a new bull market (46%) than those that say this is just a bear market rally (35%) before new losses.
Even though the stock market is back to record highs, Bank of America strategists said they “do not think positioning is dangerously bullish.” In other words, they don’t fear a new market bubble.
Housing is booming. But what about the rest of the economy?
The debate over the shape of the recovery comes amid conflicting signals.
Some parts of the economy are showing signs of rapid recovery. For instance, housing starts surged in July and have now recovered 90% of their February-April decline, according to Jefferies.
“Housing data continue to paint a picture of a V-shaped recovery. In the case of housing, we believe it will be sustained and long-lasting,” Aneta Markowska, chief economist at Jefferies, wrote in a note to clients Tuesday.
The housing boom — fueled by limited inventory and pent-up demand from millennials flocking to the suburbs — has lifted confidence among homebuilders to record highs. The housing strength is also padding the bottom lines of home improvement retailers Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Consumer spending, boosted by a wave of stimulus from Uncle Sam, is also recovering swiftly. After crashing to a seven-year low in April, US retail sales have returned to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, retail sales in July hit their highest level on record.
Yet the labor market recovery will take much longer, economists say.
At 10.2%, the unemployment rate remains above even the worst levels of the Great Recession. The United States added an impressive 1.8 million jobs in July, yet that marked a slowdown from June’s record-breaking pace of 4.8 million. And payrolls are still down nearly 13 million during the pandemic.
One-third of NY-area businesses wouldn’t survive without aid
The true health of the economy is being masked by emergency aid from the federal government — some of which has expired while Congress debates what to do.
Without that help, a staggering number of companies would struggle to survive.
If current revenue levels persist, about one-third of New York-area businesses would become insolvent without government support, according to a New York Federal Reserve survey released Tuesday. Manufacturers said they would become insolvent in an average of just six months, while service sector firms said they’d go under in an average of eight months.
The survey, which included companies based in New York, northern New Jersey and southwestern Connecticut, reflects deep concerns from companies about their finances.
About three-quarters of service-sector firms and manufacturers said they were either very or somewhat worried about collecting payments from customers. And roughly two-thirds said they were very or somewhat concerned about maintaining adequate cash flow.
Those Main Street worries suggest the risk of a double-dip recession should not be waved away by the euphoria on Wall Street.