A stunning fall and a recovery: How the stock market has evolved one year since Covid hit

A year after the Covid pandemic forced the nation into a shutdown, the stock market has been overhauled in ways Wall Street never imagined.

Last March, stocks plunged as the world faced the frightening spread of a virus many had thought would never make its way to the United States. The S&P 500 lost more than 15% in a searing decline on March 11 and 12. The index plummeted more than 30% by March 23.

Perhaps even more surprising than the fall was the market rebound that followed, powered by the twin booster engines of monetary and fiscal policy, including a rollout of programs from the Federal Reserve. The S&P 500 is up nearly 80% from the low that March and just hit a fresh record on Thursday.

“The policy response was meaningful and significant, and as a result prevented what could have been a far worse outcome,” said Tobias Levkovich, chief U.S. equity strategist at Citi.

The virus was a great equalizer. Much of the country was learning to work and attend school from home. Meanwhile, restaurants, gyms and other places where people gathered were closed or changed dramatically.

But America adapted, and so did investors.

They ran up tech stocks that benefited from a homebound populace, including Netflix, Zoom, Amazon and Peloton.

When the economy began to reopen, money moved into recovery-themed stocks, including energy, industrials, materials and financials. These sectors now lead the market, displacing high-flying tech shares.

After years of a steadily growing economy, the pandemic resulted in a shocking decline in gross domestic product. A sharp rebound followed, aided by easy monetary policy and blasts of fiscal spending.

The $1.9 trillion stimulus package, signed into law by President Joe Biden on Thursday, will be rolling out amid an uneven recovery. The service sector had never before led the economy into recession; it is the last to come back. About 10 million people are still unemployed.

“Economic volatility is here to stay…and that is different than the last 30 years,” said Julian Emanuel, head of equities and derivatives strategy at BTIG.

“There’s no escaping that when you think about the combination of [GDP] being down 31% for one quarter and up 33% in the next quarter,” he said.

“Applying record stimulus, the equivalent of about 36.2% of GDP in the subsequent year…it’s just going to be an environment where the quarter-to-quarter swings are going to be much greater than they were,” Emanuel added.

During the past year, a new cohort of retail investors — many using no-fee online trading platforms —became an important part of the market.

Goldman Sachs expects households to be the biggest source of demand for stocks this year, with $350 billion to flow into the market, compared to $300 billion from corporations.

“It’s newer and younger investors who are embracing speculation like never before, as evidenced by call options volumes that are multiples of prior years’ record volumes,” said Emanuel of BTIG.

Investors are also using record amounts of margin debt to finance their investments.

For now, the most speculative activity is focused on meme stocks, Emanuel said.

GameStop is the poster child for this volatility, a stock that was given up for dead by many but embraced by a group of retail investors.

Instead of calling their brokers, these traders turned to to the internet. WallStreetBets, a forum on Reddit, became a powerful force in market activity.

“The question is will it end up like it did at the end of the rally in 1999 and 2000,” said Emanuel of BTIG. “Could it end up in a very strong parabolic-like surge across the entire stock market?”

Citi’s Levkovich said investors tend to sell momentum as much as they buy momentum.

“The moves we’ve seen in stock prices, where they can double or triple in a day,” he said. “The incredible issuance of SPACs, the crypto stuff — a lot of these are signs of too much liquidity generating speculative behavior.”

Nonetheless, the market rewards have been huge. Tesla, for instance, is up 630% since March 23, while Etsy is up more than 520%, Freeport-McMoRan 540% and L Brands is up 500%.

Stocks have also not really been challenged by bonds for investment dollars, even with the recent rise in yields.

“Why as a 20- or 30-year-old would you want to buy a fixed income investment if the expectation for inflation is 2% and the Fed is telling you, it’s not going to stop with liquidity until inflation is sustainably above 2%,” said Emanuel of BTIG. “Because real yields are so low, it continues to be a good time for equity investment.”

The benchmark 10-year Treasury yield has moved higher lately, as the promise of the latest fiscal stimulus package has boosted the outlook for growth.

Economists expect the economy could grow by 6% this year. The 10-year yield, which moves opposite price, was at about 1.53% Thursday, well off its year low of 0.50% but below its recent high of 1.61%.

Market now in mid-cycle
Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA Research, expects the market to move higher this year.

He also says it’s due for a bigger correction than the market sell-offs that took place from mid-February to last week. In that period, the S&P 500 at the time sold off close to 6%, while the Nasdaq fell more than 10%.

“When I look at all the historical facts that say stocks are overpriced, it gets me scared,” said Stovall. “The S&P market cap is 140% of nominal GDP and the S&P average is 62%.”

The market has also had only one sizeable correction since it took off in March.

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