The stock market is not the economy , but that doesn’t make it any less unsettling that the gap between how Americans feel about them is growing wider by the month.
And as the Dow Jones struggles for direction following a feverish recovery, analysts warn that FOMO could set investors up for a painful downturn when the mood finally sours.
The coronavirus pandemic has given new meaning to the phrase “ugly economic data,” but the latest statistics from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Survey of Consumer Expectations reveal just how down on the economy everyday Americans have become.
Key measures of consumer sentiment plunged across the board in March, only to careen ever lower in April. Many are now plumbing lows not seen since the Fed introduced this survey in 2013.
Respondents believe there’s a mean probability of 21% that they’ll lose their job within the next twelve months. Barely a quarter believe they’ll be in a better financial situation one year from now – down from about 43% in January and February.
And the median expectation for income growth this year fell to 1.87% – the first time this indicator has ever come in below 2%.
Suffice to say that consumers are not bullish about the economy or the security of their place in it. And yet there’s one segment of the financial landscape that they’ve never been more confident about.
It’s not the expectation that the unemployment rate will go up this year. Nor is it their household’s risk of falling into delinquency on at least one debt payment in the next three months, although both of these metrics are flirting with all-time highs.
It’s the belief that the stock market will be higher one year from now than it is today.
Consumers predict there’s a 51.8% probability that stock prices will increase over the next year. It’s the second straight month this indicator has reached a new zenith.
Before March 2020 – when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was trapped in a devastating tailspin – this measure of stock market sentiment had never exceeded 45.44%.
That’s a dangerous sign for the stock market, especially considering that Goldman Sachs was already warning that “fear of missing out” (FOMO) had caused the Dow’s breathtaking recovery to exceed its underlying fundamentals.
David Kostin, the investment bank’s chief U.S. equity strategist, wrote in a new report that investors are downplaying a bevy of economic headwinds .
And to make matters worse, they’re doing it with stock valuations already at their most inflated levels since 2002, with the S&P 500 trading at 19.5 times earnings estimates.
“A single catalyst may not spark a pullback, but a number of concerns and risks exist that we believe, and our client discussions confirm, investors are downplaying,” Kostin wrote. “The ‘fear of missing out’ best describes the thought process.”
Although the relatively high number of S&P 500 shorts potentially loads the market with dry powder to ignite the next upward lunge, Goldman warns that there’s equally-bearish evidence that an abnormally large number of investors haven’t taken profits following the recent recovery.
This not only suggests that investors have succumbed to FOMO but also creates a looming downside risk. Because if sentiment begins to darken, or the Dow hits a ceiling and begins to bleed lower, those same investors could rush to take profits before they disappear altogether.
Retail investors – often derisively called the “dumb money” – don’t have a great track record when it comes to playing the stock market.
On the one hand, “dumb money” interest in the stock market has fallen considerably since the stock market rocketed off its lows. Google searches for “Dow Jones,” “stock market,” and “buy stocks” have all declined by nearly two-thirds from their mid-March peaks.
On the other, search volume for all three of these terms remains at least double their “normal” interest.
This is all the more remarkable considering that the unemployment rate spiked to Great Depression levels in April, leaving more than 20 million Americans with no income to “buy stocks” and more important considerations than the Dow’s day-to-day fluctuations.
This suggests there’s still plenty of air to let out of the stock market’s balloon. At least in the short-term.
Goldman Sachs and David Kostin expect the S&P 500 to dive as low as 2,400 within the next three months, a slide of nearly 20% from its current level.
But the strategist doesn’t expect it to stay there for long. In fact, he expects the index to surge back to 3,000 by December.
Given that the S&P 500 opened slightly above 2,900 on Monday, this forecast implies the stock market will enter the new year marginally higher than it is today. Just like the Fed’s consumer expectations survey predicts.
Maybe, for once, “dumb money” actually knows what it’s doing.