The Unemployment-Stock Market Correlation in One Chart

And Where Do Stocks Go Now that the U.S. Unemployment Rate Can’t Go Much Lower?

America’s unemployment rate remains near its lowest point in nearly a half-century—an incredible accomplishment less than a decade removed from the worst recession since the Great Depression. And while the fourth-quarter 2018 market correction knocked stocks back, they’ve fully recovered since. And that got me wondering about the unemployment-stock market correlation.

Here’s what that correlation looks like on a 10-year chart, starting from the tail end of the 2008-09 recession. (The red line is the S&P 500, the purple line is the unemployment rate.)

chart up blue arrow and line

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The 10-Year Unemployment-Stock Market Correlation

The unemployment-stock market correlation over the last 10 years.

I realize that it’s not exactly like discovering fire to say there’s an unemployment-stock market correlation. When a lot of people are out of jobs and the economy is bad, of course stocks are low. And when the unemployment rate drops, of course stocks rise. But that’s almost perfect divergence, at least after the initial market crash when the unemployment rate doubled from 5% in April 2008 to 10% in October 2009.

Stocks bottomed in March 2009, about eight months before unemployment hit its 10% high. The bounce-back from rock bottom brought a 23.5% jump in the S&P 500 in 2009. Since then, the two best years for stocks have been 2013 (+29.6%) and 2017 (+19.4%). Those just so happen to be two of the three years with the largest percent drops in the unemployment rate; it fell 16.3% in 2013, and 14.6% in 2017. (Unemployment tumbled 15.1% in 2014, which was also a double-digit return year (+11.4%) for the S&P.)

Where do stocks go from here now that the unemployment rate can’t go much lower?

Perhaps that’s part of what investors are trying to figure out in this period of uncertainty and volatility. The unemployment rate fell for nearly nine years, resulting in a nine-year bull market. The last time unemployment dipped below 4% and stayed there for more than a few months was from 1966 though 1969—way too long ago to really glean much that could translate to today’s world.

So, from that perspective, this is uncharted territory on Wall Street. Unemployment can go no lower for the first time since the turn of the century, right when the Internet bubble burst, prompting the unemployment rate to jump more than 5% in two years.

Thus, the best investors can hope for is that some other bubble (real estate?) doesn’t burst, and that unemployment continues to hover at least in the neighborhood of 4%. History tells us that if unemployment spikes again, stocks will tank. But relative stasis in the jobs numbers shouldn’t scare investors off, especially not after the end of last year scared so many of them off already (many still haven’t come back).

Bottom line: As the chart shows, the unemployment-stock market correlation has been a reliable inverse relationship for the last decade (and beyond). Now that unemployment can’t drop much further, stocks are kind of on their own.

We’ll see whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing.

Timothy Lutts

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*This post has been updated from an original version.

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