Big losses in stock markets around the world this year have the wingtip-set fretting, but regular consumers across the United States are confident enough to open their wallets and spend more. It’s an about-face from the early years of the economic recovery, which began in 2009, when stocks and big banks were soaring but many on Main Street felt like they were getting left behind.
“It’s almost like a stock market is a different animal,” says Earl Stewart, who owns a Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach, Florida, far from the roiling markets in New York, Frankfurt and Shanghai. “We’re not seeing any of the negativity.”
The stock market’s malaise hasn’t affected his customers, at least not yet. Sales for the past year have been the best since 2007, and he had record profits in 2015.
The divergence underway between Main Street and Wall Street highlights the difference between the U.S. stock market and the economy. The stock market’s worries are centered on things like the strength of foreign economies, such as how much China’s sharp slowdown will hurt exporters and businesses in other countries. Low oil prices are crushing the shares of big energy companies and the big banks that lend to them—but leaving consumers with more money to spend after they fill up their car with cheap gasoline.
These forces have dragged the Standard & Poor’s 500 index down 12.5 percent from its peak in May. Foreign stocks have lost double that. Hedge funds, which cater to the wealthiest and biggest investors, are also struggling. They lost money in January and got off to their worst start of a year since 2008, according to Hedge Fund Research.
Economists say the split trends between Main Street and Wall Street can continue, but only up to a point. If profits fall sharply enough, for example, it could push CEOs to once again cut swaths of jobs in order to shore up their earnings. If stock prices fall deep enough, the panic in the headlines could traumatize consumers whether or not they have a 401(k), and spending could slow.
For now, though, Main Street continues to trend upward. Only 13 percent of the U.S. economy depends on exports, and the rest of it—which is mostly consumer spending—is still growing, albeit slowly.
“Down here, as a small business owner, you don’t feel connected to Wall Street at all,” says Jon Sears, a co-owner of four bars and restaurants in Columbia, South Carolina. “When I talk to people in Columbia, I can’t think of a conversation I’ve had about the stock market in the past two or three weeks.”
His business depends instead on the nearby University of South Carolina. Revenue growth at his locations has held up this year, at his cheapest bar and his more upscale restaurant that serves local, organic foods.
Retailers around the country are seeing something similar. Shoppers bought more autos, clothes and other items last month, even though the S&P 500 in that span had its worst week in more than four years. U.S. retail sales rose 0.2 percent during the month, beating analyst expectations.
Consumer sentiment did show a dip in early February. But confidence still remains near its average for last year and well above where it was for every other year of the recent bull market.
Among the reasons that Main Street is feeling relatively confident while Wall Street stumbles:
— The job market is getting better.
Employers continue to add jobs, particularly in the retail and health care industries, and the unemployment rate is at an eight-year low. Job growth did slow last month, but economists say that just balances out the big surge in hiring at the end of last year, and they’re still forecasting more gains.
Even more importantly, wages are trending higher. That means workers are feeling more secure in their jobs and in their finances. Just over 3 million workers quit their jobs in December, the highest number in nearly a decade. That’s an optimistic sign because people generally quit when they have a higher-paying job offer in hand.
— Bills are getting a bit easier to pay.
The plunging prices of gasoline, natural gas, heating oil and other commodities are getting lots of attention, but prices are low across the economy. Prices for meat, poultry, fish and eggs also fell in December from a year earlier. So did prices for clothes and airfares.
There is a fear that the economy may get too much of a good thing. If prices fall too sharply, it could lead to a vicious cycle in which customers wait longer to make purchases, which forces businesses to cut jobs.
— Home values are rising.
“More people care still care about the value of their homes than the value of their stocks,” says Diane Swonk, an independent economist.
That’s because for many Americans, their home is their biggest if not only investment. And that investment is doing well, regardless of the stock market’s struggles. Home prices nationwide are nearly back to peak levels from before the Great Recession, and they’re already at a record in San Francisco and several other cities.
It may just be Main Street’s time in the sun, says Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at Nuveen Asset Management. He says economic recoveries have long been split into two phases.
“The first half of an economic cycle is when markets tend to best, and that’s when Wall Street gains on Main Street,” Doll says. “The second half is when labor gets an increasing share of GDP, and that’s just starting.”