But the stock market is not the economy. Roughly half of Americans own no stock, either directly or via retirement accounts like 401(k)s. In fact, well over 80 percent of the stock market is owned by the wealthiest 10 percent of American families, according to the federal Survey of Consumer Finances.
A booming stock market therefore has little bearing on the day-to-day lives of most people. This becomes all the more apparent when you compare those gains against wage growth over the same period.
Since Trump took office, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index — a widely regarded barometer of the health of the overall market — has climbed about 40 percent while wages have advanced just 9 percent. What’s more, those modest pay gains were largely eaten up by the swelling costs of medical care, housing, education and other necessities.
Relative to prior presidents, Trump is unique in his efforts to claim credit for the market’s performance. But the underlying trends driving the market and wage growth predate his administration by several decades. Let’s zoom back as far as the data sets allow, in this case to 1964.
Ballooning market returns are the primary feature of this chart: Since 1964, the S&P 500 has jumped by a whopping 4,116 percent while wages climbed a relatively paltry 852 percent (neither series is adjusted for inflation). But it also reveals an interesting shift: Stocks’ rapid surge past wages didn’t begin until well into the 1990s. Before that, the two series were much closer.
Here, for instance, is the same chart showing only the three decades from 1964 through 1994.
Given the economy of the past quarter-century, it’s easy to conclude that the market’s gains have long outpaced those of wages. But this clearly wasn’t always the case — in fact, for much of the 1970s and ’80s, wages surpassed stocks.
There are, of course, any number of factors that bear upon either of the two data series. They’re influenced in myriad ways by such factors as recessions, inflation rates, policy choices and the health of the global economy. But it’s nonetheless clear that, starting some time near the end of the past century, those complex interactions began producing a starkly different wage/stock trajectory.
There is plenty of reason to suspect, as many economists increasingly do, that policy choices made in the ’80s and ’90s have been big drivers of the income and wealth trends we observe today. Tax rates on the highest earners were slashed dramatically, while lawmakers took steps that weakened unions.
Decisions made by major corporations also are a key factor. Companies began diverting more of their profits to shareholders, for instance, and less to their workers.
Throughout much of the latter half of the 20th century, you could plausibly argue that what is good for the stock market is good for the rest of the economy. Market returns and wages danced around each other and had their ups and downs, but they largely followed the same trajectory.
In today’s economy, that’s emphatically no longer the case.