How Now, Thou Dow?

DOW Stocks

I think it’s time to rebrand the world’s most over-hyped equity benchmark. Maybe the Dow Jones post-industrial average?

Effective next week, America’s archetypal industrial enterprise, General Electric Co., will no longer be among the select group of 30 stocks whose daily price movements are reported all over the world and yet practically ignored. A committee of executives at S&P Dow Jones Indices has decided to replace GE with Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., which you know as your local drive-in drugstore if you are American, or just as “Boots” if you happen to be in England.

When the local greeting-card and aspirin purveyor becomes part of an “industrial” average, well, it just isn’t an industrial average any more. But it really has not been that for some time.

There certainly are industrial firms still in the Dow 30. DowDuPont Inc. has to qualify by anybody’s standards. So do integrated energy giants like Exxon and Chevron, and heavy-equipment makers like Caterpillar and Boeing. I would put 3M in this category, and I will credit Intel and IBM because they still manufacture a lot of what they invent and sell (although IBM has worked hard to convert itself into primarily a service vendor).

But Apple really is not “industrial,” at least not in the 20th century sense of that word. It is a design, marketing and retailing company. The industrial work of actually manufacturing its products is outsourced to Foxconn and other genuine industrial firms all over the world (but almost entirely outside the United States). Ditto Nike, which is really in the same business as Apple when you think about it.

Walmart and Home Depot are big companies, but they aren’t “industrial.” McDonald’s? If you think so, you may have had one too many Happy Meals. Big as it is, Mickey D’s is still just a franchised chain of burger and shake stands.

The Dow is heavy with financial stocks: American Express, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Visa. These are important companies in important businesses, but they don’t make stuff you can touch, wear or eat.

Pulling GE out of the Dow symbolizes how much that company has fallen upon hard times, largely of its own making. That decision is about a particular company. It is the decision to replace GE with Walgreens that tells us how much the world has changed.

The Dow itself is really just an artifact of an earlier era, one in which a recently industrialized America was first taking its place among the world’s great economic powers. Today the financial news media still breathlessly reports daily movements in the index, and every time it hits a big round number it is treated as some sort of historic event. Financial advisers, myself included, still get anxious phone calls from some clients who become alarmed when they hear “the Dow plunged 600 points today.” For reference, that drop is about 2.5 percent of the index’s current value. A one-day movement of this magnitude is just noise for a typical investor, who should be focused on both the longer term and the broader market.

My colleagues and most of our peers almost universally ignore the Dow except when we are talking to clients who care about it. The Wall Street Journal, whose editors sit on the committee that decides the Dow’s membership, reported that less than $30 billion sits in index funds designed to track these 30 stocks. That’s a rounding error compared to nearly $10 trillion – notice the “t” – that tracks the more representative S&P 500 index.

I can’t fault the index selection committee for keeping the Dow 30 more or less representative of the economy in which we live, as represented by a small sample of some of America’s most prominent public corporations. But as long as they are keeping the index up to date, they may want to start with changing the name. The Dow Industrials just are not very industrial any longer.

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About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

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