The S&P 500 gained 5.5% in July—despite a historically bad U.S. economic downturn

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Recession? What recession?

The S&P 500 registered a 5.5% gain in July, as America’s largest corporations shrugged off one of the worst economic downturns on record. The benchmark index is now up 1.25% on the year, having rebounded from March’s historic correction to claw back all the value it lost amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Retail group L Brands led the way among the S&P’s constituent companies with its stock gaining 63% in value in July thanks to a positive earnings report. Walmart, the largest company on the index by revenue, climbed 8% on the month, while tech giants Apple (+16.5%), Amazon (+14.7%), and Alphabet (+5%)—all of them with market capitalizations of $1 trillion-plus—helped drive the market upward.

A second-quarter earnings season that, by most metrics, has exceeded expectations undoubtedly contributed to the S&P’s exceptional month. Of the 312 companies on the index that had reported their earnings as of Friday morning, 82% delivered results that beat analysts’ targets—and did so with earnings that, on aggregate, were nearly 22% above expectations, according to Refinitiv data. Both of those metrics are the highest on record dating back to 1994, per Refinitiv.

Corporate America’s outperformance comes amid devastating indicators for the state of the U.S. economy at large. The nation’s GDP contracted 33% year-on-year in the second quarter, according to data released by the government Thursday—a second consecutive quarterly decline that officially sent the U.S. into a recession. The pandemic has shut down huge swaths of the nation’s economy, pushed the unemployment rate above 11%, and forced tens of millions of Americans to rely on federal unemployment benefits that expired at the end of this month.

Though many observers are worried that matters may only get worse for those on Main Street, Wall Street remains on an unabated tear. The tech sector’s success drove the Nasdaq Composite up 6.8% in July, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 2.4% this month.

Still, there are signs that investors have one eye on the abysmal economy at large and its potential impact on the stock market. The value of assets like gold and U.S. Treasury bonds—traditional “safe havens” that investors usually flock to amid bearish market conditions—have uncharacteristically climbed in lock-step with equities, with gold prices hitting all-time highs and Treasury yields plunging to historic lows.

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