Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub
STOCKMARKET HISTORY is packed with drama: the 1929 crash; Black Monday in 1987, when share prices lost 20% in a day; the dotcom mania in 1999. With such precedents, nothing should come as a surprise, but the past eight weeks have been remarkable, nonetheless. A gut-wrenching sell-off in shares has been followed by a delirious rally in America. Between February 19th and March 23rd, the S&P 500 index lost a third of its value. With barely a pause it has since rocketed, recovering more than half its loss. The catalyst was news that the Federal Reserve would buy corporate bonds, helping big firms finance their debts. Investors shifted from panic to optimism without missing a beat.
This rosy view from Wall Street should make you uneasy (see article). It contrasts with markets elsewhere. Shares in Britain and continental Europe, for example, have recovered more sluggishly. And it is a world away from life on Main Street. Even as the lockdown eases in America, the blow to jobs has been savage, with unemployment rising from 4% to about 16%, the highest rate since records began in 1948. While big firms’ shares soar and they get help from the Fed, small businesses are struggling to get cash from Uncle Sam.
Wounds from the financial crisis of 2007-09 are being reopened. “This is the second time we’ve bailed their asses out,” grumbled Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, last month. The battle over who pays for the fiscal burdens of the pandemic is just beginning. On the present trajectory, a backlash against big business is likely.
Start with events in the markets. Much of the improved mood is because of the Fed, which has acted more dramatically than other central banks, buying up assets on an unimagined scale. It is committed to purchasing even more corporate debt, including high-yield “junk” bonds. The market for new issues of corporate bonds, which froze in February, has reopened in spectacular style. Companies have issued $560bn of bonds in the past six weeks, double the normal level. Even beached cruise-line firms have been able to raise cash, albeit at a high price. A cascade of bankruptcies at big firms has been forestalled. The central bank has, in effect, backstopped the cashflow of America Inc. The stockmarket has taken the hint and climbed.
The Fed has little choice—a run on the corporate-bond market would worsen a deep recession. Investors have cheered it on by piling into shares. They have nowhere else good to put their cash. Government-bond yields are barely positive in America. They are negative in Japan and much of Europe. You are guaranteed to…