The stock market in the age of coronavirus

How to understand the wild swings of the past two weeks

The stock market is in the midst of one of its most volatile periods ever.

On Thursday, February 27, 2020 the Dow dropped 1,190 points — the largest drop in the market's history. And the sudden fall was hardly a one-off. After peaking in early February at 29,551 points, by the end of month the Dow Jones had lost roughly 20 percent of its value. Then, on Tuesday March 3, the Federal Reserve Board announced they were cutting the benchmark interest rate by half a point and Joe Biden had a strong showing in the Democratic primaries, and just like that, the market came roaring back to life with a 1,173-point gain on Wednesday, March 4. But this was followed by another 1,000 loss on Thursday.

In a matter of one week, trillions of dollars vanished, dramatically began to reappear, and then vanished again.

These rapid swings have been credited in the media to the uncertainty created by the global outbreak of coronavirus. But what connection is there really, and what impact does the stock market actually have on the lives of everyday people? The answer is complex.

The stock market is often touted as a general measure for the economy, and in turn for social wellbeing. Every day, news channels around the world report on the market as if it represented a basic measure for societal health.

But it's not. The stock market is a measure for social and economic inequality. And its current instability has more to do with our world's barbaric inequalities and plutocratic leadership than it does with the coronavirus. In other words, while the virus may have triggered the current crash, it is hardly the root cause of the market's recent instability.

In recent years, the stock market has been breaking new records every few weeks. In early February, the Dow Jones flirted with 30,000 points, and since the world's benchmark trading floor bottomed out in 2009 at 7,062 points, it has climbed by an incredible 324 percent. In fact, since November 4, 2016 alone, the stock market has increased by 67 percent.

But while the Dow Jones' historic climb has lined the pockets of the well-to-do, everyday citizens have benefited little from the market's record ascent.

Americans' wages have been stagnant for the last 50 years. And since the 1980s, the cost of education has increased by 213 percent while the cost of health care has gone up by just over 100 percent. In other words, while the stock market has gone through the roof, average wages have been flat and the cost of living has skyrocketed. As a result, social mobility is on the decline and the middle-class is beginning to wane. As American economist Michael D. Carr reports, "It is increasingly the case that no matter what your educational background is, where you start has become increasingly important for where you end."

Still, while the market tells us little about the lives of everyday Americans, it is an extremely accurate measuring stick for the wellbeing of global elites. This simple fact was on full display at the 2020 World Economic Forum (WEF), which recently held its annual convention in Davos, Switzerland.

The WEF, which was founded in 1971, is a member-only group composed of the largest corporations in the world. President Donald Trump delivered the opening remarks for the 2020 convention, and despite facing impeachment on the home front, he was warmly received by the world's wealthiest business owners.

According to Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of the influential consulting firm Eurasia Group, "There are a lot of masters of the universe who think he [Trump] may not be their cup of tea, but he's been a godsend. It's interesting to hear Mike Bloomberg saying he would fund Bernie Sanders' campaign if he won the nomination. Very few people here would say that."

By throwing budgetary caution to the wind, lowering taxes on the wealthy to historic lows, and deregulating the U.S. economy, Mr. Trump has ignited a corporate frenzy that has led the stock market to levels few could have predicted. And in doing so, he has helped the world's wealthiest citizens amass unforeseen fortunes.

But despite historically low unemployment rates, the market's reach has proven to be extremely limited. While 55 percent of Americans own stock of some sort (including those held in 401(k)s and other retirement accounts), the richest 10 percent of American households own 84 percent of American-owned stocks. In other words, a lot of Americans own piggybanks but very few have interest-earning accounts. Stock ownership is even shallower at the global level, where nearly half the world's population — or 3.4 billion people — survive on less than $5.50 per a day or $2,007.50 per year.

Put simply, the historic gains on Wall Street have contributed to an unprecedented accumulation of wealth within the hands of global elites, spurring a massive jump in global inequality. There is chatter about the world entering into a new gilded age, as if it were a debate. But facts are facts. We're not entering into a gilded age, we're living in one.

Of course, historic climbs never last forever. In the 1920s, the stock market rose by 435 percent, prior to losing nearly all its value following the 1929 crash. The Great Depression that followed had a broad, negative effect on everyone, impacting an entire generation. But it also led to a fundamental rethinking of the role of government.

It's true that the sharp drops of the last two weeks are connected to the coronavirus. But even in this case the financial markets are responding first and foremost to the possible lost profits for those top few percent of people.

It's too early to know whether what we're seeing is a massive market correction or the beginning of a new recession. But what is clear is that both a solution to the coronavirus threat and a road toward economic security for all people will require more than simply regaining the confidence of investors. Rather, it will demand a systemic shift that addresses — much like Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s — the root causes of the crash. It will require a massive reinvestment in public education, health care, and the middle-class. In short, for the first time in nearly 100 years, leaders will have to come to terms with the pernicious effects of massive inequality on society.

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