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It’s March 27, and the fragile markets rally of the past week hangs on a knife’s edge.
A bickering Congress and the deficit hawk in the White House are miles apart on a trillion-dollar relief bill aimed at helping Americans survive a virus outbreak that, while raging elsewhere in the world, seems imminently manageable in the U.S. of A.
Alas, this “care package,” as it’s being called, fails to get the votes. No big deal, the White House says.
The markets, and Corporate America see it differently. Soon enough, businesses go under. Evictions and poverty rates soar. Municipalities across the country go bankrupt. The major averages collapse, with the S&P 500 falling to a low of 1,720 in the weeks to follow.
Don’t hyperventilate, dear investor. It’s just a bad dream. (Well, the markets part; the much more serious public health crisis around coronavirus, of course, has plunged the country into a deadly spiral in recent weeks.)
Here’s what actually happened: On March 27, President Trump signed into law the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion goodie bag that covers American families and businesses, and delivers assistance to coronavirus-slammed state and local governments.
Still, that little fact didn’t stop Bank of America from going back in time to pose the hypothetical: what if the opposite were true? What if the Republicans and Democrats had failed to reach an accord on a rescue package? What would your stock portfolio look like?
There’s some history behind why they pose such a question.
“Imagine if, instead of the CARES Act and subsequent stimulus,” BofA strategists write, “we had just endured a repetition of the House TARP rejection in September 2008? The analogous S&P 500 plunge would have been to 1,720, to say nothing of the effects on public health and jobs.”
They even drew us a chart to show the hypothetical equities collapse (red-orange line):
The S&P was trading at 3,232 an hour into today’s trading session, a 1,510-point difference from the dreaded 1,720 scenario that BofA paints.
Now, let’s go back to March 27. The S&P 500 closed at 2541 on that day. In the 15 weeks since Trump signed into law the CARES Act, the benchmark index has rocketed roughly 27% higher, adding trillions in shareholder value over that time.
The price of this rally? It’s too soon to say. But, judging by BofA’s analysis, that $2.2 trillion saved a lot of stock portfolios and retirement funds.
It’s not a stretch to give taxpayers (and let’s not forget the Fed) much of the credit.
Maybe in the next relief bill, Congress can distribute to the taxpayer shares in an S&P-linked ETF. Now that would be a stimulus plan!
More must-read finance coverage from Fortune:
- If Ernst & Young auditors had done this one thing, they might have uncovered Wirecard’s $2 billion fraud years sooner
- After overbooking flights in a pandemic, American Airlines is now paying passengers to get off
- Should Facebook investors ride out the ad boycott—or cash out?
- Safelite’s CEO on steering the company through crisis—and getting sales back to pre-pandemic levels
- Former Honeywell CEO David Cote just wrote one of the best guides ever on how to lead a company