MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Major U.S. stock indexes have shot to record highs this year. They've all gained more than 20 percent. And yet growth in the U.S. remains at disappointing levels. So why is the market so bullish? A lot of analysts believe the stimulus efforts by the Federal Reserve are behind the stock boom and a possible bubble.
We asked NPR's John Ydstie to look into that.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: The Dow Industrials made a record last week.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In the stock exchange, there was a record setter on Wall Street. The major averages finished higher and the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished above the 16,000 mark for the first time ever...
YDSTIE: And the S&P 500 also crossed the 1,800 threshold last week, on the way to new highs. Lot's of analysts say the Fed's unprecedented stimulus is fueling the big run-up. Mohamed El-Erian agrees.
MOHAMED EL-ERIAN: I'm pretty confident in saying that the markets would not have done so well without the support of the Fed.
YDSTIE: El-Erian is CEO of the giant bond fund PIMCO. He says the stock market has become dependent on the $85 billion a month the Fed is adding to the financial system in its third round of quantitative easing, or QE3. He says the evidence is clear. When Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said in June that the Fed might begin dialing-back the stimulus, or tapering, as early as September and then end it next July, stocks dropped sharply. The opposite happened when September came and the Fed decided not to reduce the stimulus.
EL-ERIAN: When the Fed decided, to the surprise of everybody, not to taper, the markets took off. So, you can identify very clearly the comfort that investors have in riding this massive central bank liquidity wave.
YDSTIE: And why is the market so influenced by the Fed? El-Erian says it's because through its stimulus, the Fed has pushed investors into the stock market. The Fed's policies have reduced interest rates to historically low levels. That means the return on money market funds is near zero, and the return on Treasury bonds is extremely low so investors are pushed into stocks to get higher returns.
But El -Erian says pushing someone into something is a tricky business. Take marriage, for example.
EL-ERIAN: If you're pushed into a marriage, the likelihood of there being deep conviction is much lower than if were pulled into a marriage by love. Similarly, if you're pushed into an investment because it's better than something else, your conviction is not as high than if you were pulled in by the fundamental attractiveness of the investment.
YDSTIE: El-Erian says the Fed's policies did help the economy avoid a depression and grow faster. But he says the Fed has gotten no help from Congress. He says its policies and brinksmanship have hurt growth. That's forced the Fed to keep it's stimulus in place too long and there's now a risk that the Fed's exit could tank the stock market.
EL-ERIAN: We are so deep in experimental mode. We are using untested tools. There is no analytical model or historical experience or game plan that can help us.
YDSTIE: Fed officials seem less concerned than El-Erian. The Fed chief-in-waiting, Janet Yellen, said at her confirmation hearing recently that historical data suggest that there's no bubble in stocks today. That was also the conclusion of a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the of the big business consulting firm. Susan Lund is a partner in the firm.
SUSAN LUND: Investors are clearly watching every move the Fed makes. But when you look for evidence that in the long-term equity prices are higher than would be justified by fundamentals, there's just no evidence of that.
YDSTIE: Lund says the market is up so much, partly because it dropped so far during the Great Recession.
LUND: Typically after stock market slumps, you do see a rebound. And then also, the stock market gains reflect in the long-term just the rise in corporate earning and the amount of cash corporations have today.
YDSTIE: And Lund says, the fact that the ratio of stock prices to company earnings is about at the historical average suggests there is no bubble. Other economists, who see a bubble developing, counter that company profits today are largely the result of cost cutting, not growth in sales.
But the no-bubble side points out that, adjusted for inflation, the S&P 500 Index is no higher now than it was 13 years ago.
John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.