What makes the stock market move over the long term? While stocks have historically delivered positive returns year-over-year on average, it is not clear why stock prices rise more rapidly in one period than in any other.
With my colleagues, Martin Lettau of the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business and Sydney Ludvigson of New York University, I set out to investigate what makes stocks move over time. What we found was surprising.
Despite the widespread belief that firm productivity is a key driver of stock market returns, our results indicate that fluctuations in productivity play only a small role. Far more influential over long periods is the economic redistribution between workers and shareholders — meaning how a company’s profits are divided between employees and investors.
Our first step in this research was to consider which factors might be responsible for movement in the stock market in aggregate. Each firm that is represented in the stock market index produces a stream of revenues. After paying a portion to workers, the rest is left over as profits that can be distributed to shareholders as dividends. The stock price will rise whenever the rewards to the shareholders increase, which can be caused by one of three separate forces:
- Productivity: The firm becomes more productive, increasing its stream of revenues. This increases the size of both slices, including the shareholders’ slice.
- Redistribution: The size of the pie remains fixed, but the firm pays a smaller share to the workers, increasing the shareholders’ slice.
- Market confidence: Neither the size nor the division of the pie changes, but more risk-tolerant investors demand more stock despite there being no change in their current dividends.