The US Funny Mr. Steal Your Pie thanksgiving turkey T-Shirt B0BN1P4PWR .Unemployment rate is 3.6 percent — only a hair above its level just before the pandemic, which was a 50-year low. Corporate profits rocketed by 35 percent in 2021, and profit margins were at their widest since 1950. Yet stocks have been hammered lately: Two key stock indexes, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100, have been deep in negative terrain since the start of the year. What may seem a contradiction is actually a historical pattern: Hot labor markets and hot stock markets often don’t mix well. In fact, times of low unemployment are correlated with somewhat subdued stock returns, while valuations trend higher on average during periods of high unemployment. Analysts explain this phenomenon as a plain function of the unemployment rate’s status as a “lagging indicator” — letting people know how the economy was faring in the immediate past — while the stock market itself constantly serves as a “leading indicator,” coldly, if somewhat imperfectly, projecting an evolving consensus about the fate of companies as time goes on.
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In 2007, for instance, unemployment sank as low as 4 Funny Mr. Steal Your Pie thanksgiving turkey T-Shirt B0BN1P4PWR .4 percent, but the annual return for the S&P 500 index was only 5.5 percent. Stocks plunged during the financial crisis the next year — and then, in 2009, as unemployment ripped higher to 10 percent, the index gained 26.5 percent. (Breaks in the pattern occur, since various tailwinds for big business, such as the tech boom of the 1990s, can briefly overpower historical trends.) When recoveries peak, investor exuberance can lead to excessive risk taking by businesses, which plants the seeds of the next downturn — just as workers are benefiting from being in high demand, with their higher wages cutting into corporate cash piles built up during good times, putting pressure on near-term profits. Financial investors also have to contend with the Federal Reserve’s response to the cycle — if there’s inflation, as there is now, a strong labor market may give it room to raise interest rates. A weak one can pressure it to cut rates. Action in either direction affects stock valuations.
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