Donnie Herlt didn’t realize America’s stock market hit a record high Wednesday until a reporter called him and asked about it.
Herlt, a 40-year-old who works two jobs in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was busy at work, processing payments and invoices for a company that makes law enforcement uniforms. No one in his office said anything about the Dow Jones industrial average hitting 22,000 for the first time ever.
“Honestly, I don’t follow the market at all. I can’t make head or toe of it,” says Herlt, who voted for President Donald Trump. He thinks he has money in a 401(k) retirement plan, but he’s not sure how much he has or whether he is invested in stocks.
The reality is most Americans are like Herlt. They have little, if anything, in the market.
President Trump cheered the market milestone Wednesday as proof of an economic boom. He tweeted about it and mentioned it again at a news conference, predicting the market is “going to go higher.” The Dow has soared 20 percent since Election Day, a stunning rise that has been dubbed a “Trump bump.”
But most of gains are going to the wealthy.
Nearly half of country has $0 invested in the market, according to the Federal Reserve and numerous surveys by groups such as Gallup and Bankrate. That means people have no money in pension funds, 401(k) retirement plans, IRAs, mutual funds or ETFs. They certainly don’t own individual stocks such as Facebook or Apple.
Wall Street is not Main Street. Many presidents have learned that lesson. Trump’s challenge is to help lift jobs and wages in the “real economy.” Herlt is optimistic. He believes Trump does care about “normal, everyday people” like him.
Stock ownership is “heavily tilted toward rich guys: doctors, lawyers, accountants. It’s not the middle class,” says Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center. He used to work at a large corporate law firm. He saw firsthand how many of his well-paid colleagues were shoveling “six-figures a year” into the market, mostly via retirement accounts.
The Dow is a popular index that tracks the performance of 30 major American companies. It has gone from about 18,000 on Election Day to 22,000 now. That’s about double the gains of a typical year. Many on Wall Street give Trump credit for starting the rally, although they say the surge this summer is more about soaring corporate earnings than anything political.
The rich are far more likely to own stocks than middle or working-class families. Eighty-nine percent of families with incomes over $100,000 have at least some money in the stock market, compared with just 21 percent of households earning $30,000 or less, a recent Gallup survey found.
“Lot of people in America tragically aren’t participating in the stock market,” says Brad McMillan, chief investment officer at Commonwealth Financial Network, a financial advisory firm that works mainly with “Main Street” America.
While money has flooded into U.S. stocks in recent months, McMillan says most of that is people who already have money in the market adding more to their accounts. Too many people are still sitting in the sidelines, missing out on one of the longest-running bull markets in American history because they are still scared from the financial crisis.
Olga Aguilar, of Miami, is one of the people who’s still skeptical of the market after she and her husband lost about $15,000 in 2008. That was money they had saved up and invested in stocks. They still have their retirement funds in the market, but they have never put their extra savings back in.
“With this wave, I’m thinking about getting in,” says Aguilar, frustration still evident in her voice. “But I’m very cautious. The stock market always corrects.”
Aguilar is a Trump supporter who believes the Dow’s record is a “positive sign that people are confident in the economy under President Trump.” But she tells all of her friends thinking of investing to be careful.
Stock ownership before 2008 was 62 percent, Gallup found. Even after recent inflows, only 54 percent of Americans are invested now. More adults in the United States own homes than stocks.
“There’s been an enormous push to have people own their own homes. We need a similar push for families to own stocks,” says McMillan.
Trump’s celebration of the stock market gains might actually help encourage Main Street to save more and invest, although there’s heavy debate about whether the market is nearing a peak.
Herlt is a big fan of the president’s. He campaigned for him and traveled to Washington to watch the inauguration. He then attended the rally in Harrisburg for Trump’s first 100 days in office.
Overall, Herlt thinks Trump is doing a good job, but he’s not focused on the stock market. He’s a lot more concerned about wages. They are still rising only about 2.5 percent a year. That’s below average (and similar to the Obama years).