(Bloomberg Opinion) — Something strange happened in the U.S. stock market on Tuesday.
No, it wasn’t that the S&P 500 crossed 3,000 for the first time in almost three months, generating a yelp of joy from the White House and groans from Wall Street veterans who remain perplexed at the seeming disconnect between financial markets and the American economy.
Rather, the most unusual part of the latest rally is that bank shares clearly led the advance. As of last week, Bloomberg’s 18-company S&P 500 Banks Index was down more than 40% in 2020, trailing the broader stock market by an almost unprecedented degree since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world’s largest economy. However, the index soared 9% on Tuesday, far and away a bigger gain than any of the other 23 industry groups.
A simple ratio of this bank index to the broad S&P 500 shows the extent to which financials have been beaten down so far in 2020 relative to other segments of the stock market. The gauge fell on May 13 to a level seen only twice before in data going back three decades, both in March 2009. The banks swiftly rebounded in the following months as the U.S. recession officially drew to a close in June of that year.
As investors weigh the drastic gains on Wall Street against the backdrop of widespread unemployment and shuttered small businesses on Main Street, the performance of bank stocks may prove to be a crucial barometer of whether markets can sustain their exuberance. Few analysts dispute that shares of financial companies are cheap on a relative basis — but sometimes prices are depressed for good reasons. Inexpensiveness alone isn’t a compelling enough reason to expect banks to bounce back as they did in 2009. Instead, perhaps more than any other industry, a lasting rally will come down to investors’ conviction in a sharp and sustained economic recovery.
Investors have a few obvious reasons to be wary of U.S. banks. For one, long-term interest rates are near record lows while traders have started to wager on negative short-term rates, even as Federal Reserve officials repeatedly question the policy. All this points to lower net interest income, a crucial metric that reflects the spread between what a company earns on its loans and what it pays on its deposits. Meanwhile, large banks have already halted share buybacks, and minutes from April’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting revealed that policy makers are debating whether they should also restrict their ability to pay dividends to shareholders during the pandemic.
Whether those downsides merit a $1 trillion wipeout, akin to the 2008 financial crisis, is not so clear cut. As Bloomberg News’s Lu Wang and Felice Maranz reported, at that time the financial industry’s earnings worsened for eight consecutive quarters, but analysts only expect profit declines to last half as long…