Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How The DOW Is Often Misused As An Indicator Of Likely Returns On An Individual Stock Investment

Every asset class at some time or other has its day in terms of being the investment that offers returns superior to all other types of assets. Real estate, gold, fine art, fixed income instruments such as bonds, even in recent times the so-called alternative assets of private equity and hedge fund investments can be kings of the hill. However, over any very long period of time measured in decades, all the evidence suggests that investing in stocks - equity stakes in publicly traded companies - is the best way to achieve real inflation-beating returns.

It is typical of writers in the investing genre to use the statistical history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (the Dow) to indicate the wisdom of investing in stocks. At first blush, the choice of this index may appear to be strange, given that it contains just thirty stocks (out of many thousands of publicly traded companies) whereas broader indices such as the Standard & Poors (S&P) 500 and the Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index cover much more broadly-based groupings of stocks. However, the general usage of the Dow in this way reflects both its longevity, (it has been around for one hundred and eleven years now and has been a thirty-stock index since 1928), as well as its general acceptance by investors, the media and the general public.

When someone remarks that the market is up 35 points today, they do not mean that the S&P 500 is up by that amount, nor the NASDAQ 100, nor certainly the Wilshire 5000. If the market is up 35 points then you can be sure this refers to an increase that day in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It is precisely for this reason that the use of the Dow, whatever weaknesses it may have in other ways, makes perfect sense as a day-to-day gauge of what the market is doing. In effect, precisely owing to this level of acceptance, the Dow is the most logical index to use to act as an indicator on movements within the market overall because, to all intents and purposes, the Dow is the market.

This general acceptance and longevity have the additional effect that the Dow is consistently used as a market proxy by investment writers wishing to demonstrate how over very long periods of decades and more investing in stocks has been the smartest investing practice. This is especially well illustrated by showing the upward advance of the Dow in graph form. The message is clear there is an obvious ever onward and upward progression of the index. This can be used to bolster the argument, very typically used by writers on investing, that if you had bought stocks say in November, 1972, when the Dow closed above 1,000 for the first time, then your investment would have been worth over thirteen times that initial investment in 2007 with the Dow today at well above the 13,000 level.

Leaving aside the fact that during the 35 years from 1972 to 2007 inflation would have eaten up a large portion of the nominal gain, (but also on the flip side the fact that over the same period dividend payouts would have made up a good part of any losses from inflation), our argument that the use of the Dow by investment writers in this way is misleading hinges on the fact that the Dow is itself in no way an immutable index. It is subjected to a kind of regular housecleaning by the editors of the Wall Street Journal who every few years bring into the Dow Jones Industrial Average companies that are dominant in the economy of the day, and throw out those that are not considered dominant enough, either generally or in their own industry sector. Therefore, they ease out the old-economy, smokestack, buggy-whip making has-beens of yesteryear, and replace them with the zippy bright new-economy stars in growth mode. This process over time can clearly be demonstrated by comparing the make-up of the Dow at the time that it first closed above 1,000 in 1972 and the make-up of the index today.

Then: Allied Chemical; Aluminum Company of America; American Can; American Telephone & Telegraphic; American Tobacco; Anaconda; Bethlehem Steel; Chrysler; DuPont; Eastman Kodak; Exxon; General Electric; General Foods; General Motors; Goodyear; International Harvester; International Nickel; International Paper; Johns-Manville; Owens-Illinois Glass; Procter & Gamble; Sears, Roebuck & Co.; Standard Oil of California; Swift & Co.; Texas Corporation; Union Carbide; United Aircraft; U.S. Steel; Westinghouse Electric; Woolworth.

Now: 3M Company; ALCOA; Altria Group; American International Group; American Express; AT&T; Boeing; Caterpillar; Citigroup; Coca-Cola; DuPont; Exxon Mobil; General Electric; General Motors; Hewlett-Packard; Home Depot; Honeywell International; Intel; IBM; Johnson & Johnson; JP Morgan Chase; McDonalds; Merck; Microsoft; Pfizer; Procter & Gamble; United Technologies; Verizon; Wal-Mart Stores; Walt Disney Co.

These different renderings of the Dow Jones Industrial Average demonstrate that the use of the index as if it is unchanging and somehow carved in stone can be misleading. The use of the index as a statistical proof of the history of the market is in truth compromised by the regular changes in its component parts. Yet it is convenient for those writing on long-term investing strategies to use the progress of the Dow over many years to demonstrate not just the general upward trend in the market over time, which is a fact, but much more tenuously that of individual stocks comprising the market.

Should a writer voice the opinion that an investment in the market in 1972 would be worth thirteen times that investment today, he or she would be ignoring the fact that any return would depend on which stocks had been selected for investment back in 1972. Buying into the market at that time could involve purchase of Dow component stocks that later did well, Dow component stocks that later did badly and are no longer part of the Dow and of course for the most part it would probably realistically mean investment in stocks that were not part of the Dow index then or now. Indeed, exactly the same issue would arise for a broader index such as the S&P 500 which is also constantly refreshed by additions of fast-growing companies and demotions of slower-growing ones. Moreover, companies that are acquired by larger, more successful companies are deleted and always replaced in the index by promising up-and-comers.

A straight comparison of an index at one point in time with the same index decades later masks the significant rotations of sectors within the overall market that are always taking place. Developments in technology, lifestyle choices and general business and consumer trends are subject to changes that can be cyclical in nature, as certain industries or companies and their products come in or out of prominence. Management miscues, competitive developments or even legal liabilities, (did we hear someone say Asbestos?) can also lay low a stock that looked promising at the time of investment and can make its performance over time very different from that of what is being referred to as the market.

The only way that comparisons of indices over many years as a measure of investment performance can truly be considered accurate is for the investor who puts his/her money into a market index fund which is managed to replicate the movements of the index on which it is based. Otherwise you really cannot directly extrapolate from the historical trend lines of any index, including the key Dow Jones Industrial Average, the likely success of any individual stock in which you may choose to invest over the very long-term. Put bluntly, individual stocks potentially have a shelf life and are perishable, even though the overall market over time may go marching on.

This article was written jointly by Aidan J. McNamara and Martha A. Brozyna

Aidan McNamara is associate publisher at The Deal LLC in New York, publisher of the weekly financial magazine The Deal as well as The Daily Deal and TheDeal.com. He holds an MA (with distinction) in Area Studies (Eastern Europe and Russia) from the University of London, 1981 and a BA in German from the University of Manchester.

Martha A. Brozyna received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California in 2005 and a BA in history and political science from Rutgers University where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1995.

McNamara and Brozyna are the authors of Contrarian Ripple Trading: A Low-Risk Strategy to Profiting from Short-Term Stock Trades, scheduled for publication by John Wiley & Sons in October 2007. Martha Brozyna published Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages: A Medieval Source Documents Reader in 2005 (McFarland & Co.)

The authors have additional information on themselves and their forthcoming book at their website http://www.ridetheripples.com