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The simple thing Trump doesn't get about the stock market

CNN logo CNN 2 days ago Analysis by Matt Egan, CNN Business
a person standing in front of a building: A man wears a face mask as he walk past the New York Stock Exchange building on Wall Street in New York, USA on September 9, 2020. © Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock A man wears a face mask as he walk past the New York Stock Exchange building on Wall Street in New York, USA on September 9, 2020.

America's booming stock market is a flawed yardstick for measuring Main Street's recovery from the pandemic.

But that doesn't stop President Donald Trump from repeatedly pointing to the V-shaped rebound on Wall Street as proof that most Americans are doing well again.

"Stocks are owned by everybody," Trump said during Tuesday's town hall on ABC. "Look, we're having a tremendous thing in the stock market, and that's good for everybody, but people that aren't rich own stock and they have 401(k)'s."

In truth, millions of Americans can't feel the stock market boom.

Just over half (52%) of American families have some level of investment in the market, mostly through 401ks and other retirement accounts, according to the Pew Research Center. Only 14% of households are directly invested in the market.

"Holding up the stock market as the barometer for how the middle class is doing is totally erroneous -- and very misleading," Edward Wolff, an NYU professor who has studied stock ownership and inequality, told CNN Business.

Trump argued the sharp rebound in the stock market doesn't only help "big people."

"It affects everybody, it affects a person that owns $10,000 worth of stock in IBM or whatever company it may be," Trump said during the town hall.

But rich Americans have far more skin in the stock market. That means when stocks go up (or down), the impact disproportionately goes to the wealthiest families.

As of the first quarter of 2020, the wealthiest 10% of American households owned 87% of all stocks and mutual funds, according to the Federal Reserve. That's up from 82% in 2009 when the last bull market began.

The middle class, defined as households in the 20% to 80% range of wealth, owned just 6.6% of stocks outstanding, according to Wolff's research.

"The performance of the stock market is so disassociated with the economic experience of the vast majority of Americans -- particularly the middle class," Wolff said. "Most Americans don't really have much of a stake in the stock market."

The S&P 500 is not Main Street

In any case, the stock market is not -- nor has it ever been -- the economy.

The S&P 500 is not a proxy for Main Street. It represents the fortunes of some of the world's biggest companies, the ones with the most resources to get through a crisis.

And Corporate America can keep earning gobs of money even when small restaurants and hardware stores on Main Street go out of business. The struggles of smaller companies can boost the market share of Home Depot and Olive Garden owner Darden Restaurants, each of which are in the S&P 500.

At times, the stock market can feel completely disconnected from the fundamentals of the real economy.

For example, the S&P 500 is sitting near record highs today even as unemployment remains elevated in the United States and bankruptcy filings are piling up.

The confidence factor

That disconnect is being driven in part by the unprecedented actions from the Federal Reserve. By dropping interest rates to zero -- and promising to keep them there for a long time to come -- the Fed is forcing investors to bet on stocks.

Investors also tend to sniff out an economic recovery long before Main Street can feel it.

No matter the catalyst, there are significant benefits to the rapid recovery on Wall Street.

The fact the S&P 500 has skyrocketed more than 50% since the March 23 bottom helps inspire confidence among C-Suite executives. And that confidence can inspire more hiring and spending on research and factories that boost the real economy.

Likewise, consumers -- especially ones that own significant amounts of stock -- can take their cues from the market. While market meltdowns can cause Americans to hunker down, headlines about record stock prices can do the opposite. More confident consumers may choose to spend extra cash on iPhones, home repairs or vacations. And that has a real economic benefit.

Black households own just 1.6% of stocks

Yet stocks are a particularly poor gauge of the financial health of average Americans, especially racial minorities.

Black households own just 1.6% of stocks and mutual funds, according to the Fed. Hispanic families owned the same amount. By comparison, White households control a staggering 92% of stocks and mutual funds, the Fed said.

There is also a deep divide across the education spectrum.

Americans with no college education own just 5.4% of stocks and mutual funds, according to the Fed. That's down from nearly 17% in 1989.

All of this means that the boom in the stock market is amplifying the inequality divide that has helped fuel unrest in the United States in recent months.

"It widens the gap between the top groups and those in the middle. It exacerbates wealth inequality," Wolff said.

That's why the next president is unlikely to tie him or herself to the whims of the stock market to the degree that Trump has.

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