The Dow Jones industrial average, which measures the performance of 30 blue-chip companies, rose more than 140 points in morning trading on Tuesday, surpassing its previous record close of 14,164.53, which it achieved nearly five and a half years ago, as well as its record intraday high, set around the same time, of 14,198.10.
Of course, a few things have happened since October 2007. The housing market collapsed, the financial system went into meltdown, the European Union started to fray and politicians dragged the United States through an on-off-on-again fiscal imbroglio.
But stocks managed to move beyond all that.
Since a low point in March 2009, the Dow Jones index has more than doubled, stunning even the most seasoned stock market watchers.
“What’s amazing about this bull market is that people still don’t think it’s real,” said Richard Bernstein, chief executive of Richard Bernstein Advisors, a money management firm. “We think this could be the biggest bull market of our careers.”
On Tuesday in particular, leading indexes abroad were rising after the Chinese government announced that it would step up spending and European data showed that retail sales there have been stronger than expected.
After the bell sounded at the New York Stock Exchange, stocks were pushed up more on a reading on the service sector in the United States showed that it had risen to its highest level of activity in a year, surprising analysts.
“Given that the service sector accounts for close to 85 percent of the U.S. economy, the strong performance on this index suggests that the overall recovery may be continuing to build on the positive momentum at the end of the year,” said Millan Mulraine, a senior strategist at TD Securities. There are some important caveats, however. The Dow is a rather narrow measure of the stock market, so it can provide a somewhat distorted picture of the market’s performance.
At 1,535.31 points in Tuesday morning trading, the much broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index is still off its nominal high of 1,565.15 points, also set in October 2007. After taking inflation into account, both indexes are down from their earlier highs in 2000. And, on an inflation-adjusted basis, the S.&P. 500 is down even after factoring in returns from dividend payments.
Still, American stocks are far ahead of their foreign counterparts. The Euro Stoxx 50, a barometer of euro zone blue chips, was at 2,666.93 points late Tuesday, off its record high of 5,464 reached in March 2000, while the FTSE 100 in London was at 6,414.32, compared to a record of 6,930.20 in December 1999.
In Asia, the Nikkei 225-share index in Tokyo closed Tuesday at 11,683.45; it reached its high of 38,916 points in December 1989. And the Hang Seng index in Hong Kong finished at 22,560.50, versus a high of 31,638 points in October 2007.
Still, despite its flaws, the Dow Jones average is the recognizable face of the stock market to many Americans, and it contains some of the best-known American corporations, like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, General Electric and International Business Machines.
The stock prices of some of the companies in the index have more than doubled since that low point in 2009. For instance, American Express is up more than 400 percent. After the crash of 1929, it took 25 years for the Dow to get back to the nominal level it plunged from. The severe economic contractions of the 1930s, during which scores of banks collapsed, weighed heavily on stocks.
But one essential government institution did things differently after the 2009 low point, and that has bolstered the stock market. The Federal Reserve has added more than $3 trillion of monetary stimulus to the economy and more than $1 trillion of bailout loans to financial firms since the 2008 financial crisis. This was done to prevent a widespread banking crash and help the wider economy.
Perhaps as important is the psychological shot in the arm: when investors believe the Fed is providing a systemic backstop, they will be more likely to get back into the market, and stay there.
“The Federal Reserve is here, and is going to do everything possible to support this recovery,” Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Fed, said in an interview with “60 Minutes” in March 2009. It is probably more than coincidence that stocks began to recover strongly after that broadcast.
“Central banks do matter. Central banks have always mattered,” said David Rosenberg, a chief economist at Gluskin Sheff and Associates, who started work as a Wall Street economist on the day of the 1987 stock market crash. “So long as the Fed is in an accommodative mode and the economy is out of recession, the odds are that you will have a bull market.”
That’s not to say that the Fed’s largess is the only reason stocks are up.
Company profits, which theoretically provide the basis for investing in stocks, have also surged. “Corporate earnings have been doing very nicely, thank you,” said Alan S. Blinder, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University. In aggregate, companies in the S.&P. 500 have not reported a decline in earnings since the third quarter of 2009.
The focus on profits explains why the stock market can be doing well while most people are not sensing a resurgent economy. A bet on an index like the Dow is effectively a narrow wager on the profits of 30 companies, not necessarily the economic health of average Americans, said Mr. Blinder. “Corporate profits have done better than median wages,” he said.
The big question is whether the stock market can keep going up from here.
One determinant is whether stocks are seen by traders as relatively expensive, and therefore vulnerable to a sell-off. Robert J. Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale University, has built a model for gauging whether stocks are cheap or pricey. Right now, stock valuations are above historical averages, but well below the stratospheric highs they’ve reached in bubbles, he said. According to his model, stocks are signaling that they can return about 3 to 4 percent a year.
“That’s not horrible,” he said, quickly adding that the stock market always has a mind of its own.
Its unpredictability may deter individual investors, although they have recently shown signs of coming back into the market. Given that stocks have risen and then disappointed for over a decade, skittishness is understandable.
The recent strong performance of the Dow Jones average also masks the woeful performance of some important companies. For instance, General Electric, held for generations in family portfolios, is down more than 40 percent from when the Dow last peaked in 2007. It may seem remarkable that Bank of America, grappling with a rat’s nest of issues, has risen by 200 percent from its 2009 low. But it is still nearly 80 percent below its high before the 2008 financial crisis.
Stock market analysts, of course, fret over what will happen when the Fed stops its stimulus.
Mr. Rosenberg, the economist, noted that the stock market has declined sharply on the two occasions since the crisis that the Fed signaled that it might temper its money printing. “In both cases, the Fed backtracked,” he said.
Still, the Fed’s easy money doesn’t look like it is going to dry up any time soon. The Fed has committed to maintaining a loose monetary policy until unemployment is well below current levels. And its policy makers will be all the more likely to take that stance if fiscal policy acts as a brake on the economy.
“How the Fed extricates itself is important,” said Mr. Bernstein, the money manager. “It could happen two, three, four, five years from now.”
In the meantime, he said, he remains confused about why more investors aren’t buying stocks. “I just don’t understand why people don’t want to play,” he said.
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