Opinion - Markets

Op-ed: The market is not out of touch with reality, it's just showing how the economy has changed

Key Points
  • The stock market still reflects what is going on in the economy, even as it has rebounded from its lows amid dismal economic data.
  • There are clear winners and losers in the pre- and post-pandemic world.
  • The market is betting that the recovery will leave the economy permanently altered and digitized at a pace faster than previously anticipated.
People wearing masks and gloves wait to enter a Walmart on April 17, 2020 in Uniondale, New York.
Al Bello

There have been market observers of late, some sophisticated, some not so much, who have pointed out that the stock market is not the economy and vice versa.

That has always been true, but during this period of crisis many have also wondered aloud how the market can be down so little when the economy is hurting so much. 

We know unemployment will likely eclipse the 24.9% peak witnessed at the very depths of the Great Depression in 1933.

Furthermore, the nation's gross domestic product will likely contract by as much as a 60% annualized rate in the second quarter — again, worse than Depression-era numbers.

There is, of course, an obvious short-run explanation. The Federal Reserve, as we all know, has pumped trillions of dollars into financial markets and the real economy while the federal government has added trillions more in direct economic assistance to businesses and workers around the nation.

That has clearly "fixed" the plumbing of the financial markets, allowing for liquidity to flow, credit markets to re-open to corporate borrowers and individuals to access various aspects of social safety nets that, at least partially, offset the loss of personal income and spending power.

But that is only part of the story.

The stock market, in more important ways, currently does reflect what is going on in the economy in real time.

A phrase that is becoming increasingly important within the domestic equity market is "dispersion of returns." In other words, there is a distinct difference in the performance of individual stocks and specific sectors.

More simply, there are clear winners and losers in the pre- and post-pandemic world.

The performance of the stock market, as a consequence, is no longer monolithic … a rising tide has not lifted all boats.

Indeed, we already know that the market's mega-cap stocks have benefited from a secular shift in investor preferences.

The top five stocks account for 20% of the S&P 500's market capitalization, a historic high. However, even with that said, certain sectors, beyond the mega-caps, have also benefited from the behavioral changes taking places among businesses and consumers.

Consider the winners of "shelter-in-place" policies that have been adopted since the outbreak of the coronavirus: whether they provide contact-free delivery of services, like Amazon.com; in-home entertainment or social interaction, like Netflix, Facebook and Twitter; work-at-home solutions, Zoom, Cisco's WebEx, etc.; or safe environments to obtain goods and services, like Walmart, Target and Costco

Microsoft, and other big tech companies, are helping to power that transition by further developing cloud-based computing, wide-area networking and broadband technologies like 5G.

Further, other sectors have outperformed the market in anticipation of greater health care needs in the future. Biotech, as a sector, is up 6.5% year-to-date while technology, as represented by the Nasdaq 100 is up over 3.5%, compared to an 11% drop in the S&P 500 so far this year.

The flip side shows the market marching away from retail and consumer discretionary stocks, or economically sensitive cyclical stocks that would benefit from a more traditional rebound in the business cycle.

The market is most assuredly suggesting that the next economic recovery will not only be abnormal, relative to past experiences, but may also be permanently altered and digitized at a pace faster than previously anticipated.

So while the stock market is not the economy and the economy is not the stock market, Wall Street is still doing its job of reflecting changing realities in the economy and, once again, suggesting what a post-pandemic economy will look like, even as we return to some semblance of normality … whenever that may be.

Commentary by Ron Insana, a CNBC and MSNBC contributor and the author of four books on Wall Street. Follow him on Twitter @rinsana.