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The Stock-Market Disconnect

The best explanation for why stock markets remain so bullish despite a massive recession is that major publicly traded companies have not borne the brunt of the pandemic's economic fallout. But having been spared by the virus, they could soon find themselves squarely in the sights of a populist backlash.

CAMBRIDGE – Why are stock-market valuations soaring when the real economy remains so fragile? One factor has become increasingly clear: The crisis has disproportionately affected small businesses and low-income service workers. They are essential for the real economy, but not so much for equity markets. True, there are other explanations for today’s lofty valuations, but each has its limitations.

For example, because stock markets are forward-looking, current stock prices may reflect optimism about the imminent arrival of effective COVID-19 vaccines and radically improved testing and treatment options, which would allow for a more limited and nuanced approach to lockdowns. This outlook may be justified, or it may be that markets are underestimating the likelihood of a severe second wave this winter, and overestimating the efficacy and impact of the first-generation vaccines.

A second, and perhaps more convincing, explanation for today’s stock market performance is that central banks have pushed interest rates down to near zero. With markets convinced that there is little chance that rates will rise in the foreseeable future, prices of long-lived assets such as houses, art, gold, and even Bitcoin have all been driven upward. And because tech firms’ revenue streams are tilted far into the future, they have benefited disproportionately from low interest rates.

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