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Why stock markets ended year with records, while other parts of economy limping

Patrick Kennedy, Star Tribune on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Thousands of people are still out of work, many restaurants and retail stores are fighting for their lives and the service industry may never be the same.

But the U.S. stock markets set records to finish 2020, despite volatility produced by the coronavirus pandemic. The S&P 500 Index is up about 70% from its March lows.

The market performance could be a sign that the economy will improve over the next six months. It also could just be a result of economic sectors being unequally represented, financial experts said.

In addition, not all Americans share in the wealth of the stock market. A pre-pandemic survey by Pew Research Center found 55% of working Americans had retirement accounts grounded in the stock market or other investment vehicles; only 35% had personal investments.

Mansco Perry, the executive director and chief investment officer of the Minnesota State Board of Investment, sees a story in the disconnect between the overall economy and the markets.

The markets have benefited from the stimulus provided by Congress and the Federal Reserve. Interest rates remain low, and during the mandated economic shutdowns this spring, public companies moved quickly to cut discretionary expenses and preserve their liquidity.


Plus, success isn't spread evenly across the S&P 500. If you look at some of its sectors there are some still suffering.

"Energy is still awful, airlines are awful, real estate is awful, hotels awful. I mean, they're all still down by double digits," Perry said in early December during the Star Tribune's annual Investors Roundtable.

The recession this year also was unlike any other, said David Royal, executive vice president and chief investment officer of Thrivent, in an interview this week.

It was not fueled by cyclical excesses, rapidly rising interest rates or systemic breakdowns that were hallmarks of past recessions. The economy was in relatively good shape at the start of the year, and investors were generally bullish about the year ahead, he said.


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