Dow 20,000

When I graduated from college in 1995 and started in this industry, I was told that the current saying for the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was ‘10,000 by 2000,’ referring to the turn of the century.

It seemed impossible to me because, at that point, the DJIA was trading below 4,500.  Just a few months before, one of my finance professors said the market was overvalued.

Less than six months on the job, the DJIA crossed 5,000, which turned out to be just the beginning.  The DJIA crossed 6,000 in 1996, 7,000 and 8,000 in 1997, 9,000 in 1998 and 10,000 in 1999, almost a full year ahead of ‘schedule.’

Newspapers featured photos of happy traders wearing Dow 10,000 hats and the mood was euphoric.   By the time Y2K rolled around, the DJIA was trading around 11,500 and the market seemed unstoppable.

Of course, we know now that we were in the middle of a giant stock market bubble that spent the next three years falling back to earth. At the bottom in 2002, the DJIA was traded around 7,300.  On the way back down, there were plenty of dark jokes about getting out the Dow 10,000 hats for a second time.

The tech wreck was brutal; but by 2006, the DJIA was back to new all-time highs.  After a few years of new all-time highs, we endured the global financial crisis and the whole process started again.

Now the DJIA stands on the verge of crossing 20,000, and beyond ordering new hats, it’s natural to wonder what this milestone means.

Sadly, I don’t think that milestones like this mean much at all.  I know that’s an unsatisfying answer, but the only reason that we like 20,000 is that it’s a round number.

Part of the reason that the DJIA is closing in on 20,000 is technical in nature.  The index only has 30 constituents and is price-weighted, which means that strange things can happen.

I’ve softened my view on the DJIA (it’s odd, but not useless), but part of the reason that it’s doing so well this year (16.4 percent, vs. 12.9 percent for the S&P 500) is that it is heavy in industrial and financial stocks, and underweight in technology stocks – a near perfect combination for the Trump bump.

The bigger point, though, is that over time, markets tend to go up over time; not because there is something special about indexes or round numbers, but because they represent ownership in businesses.

As long as companies can create and grow profits, values should increase.  The fellows that wrote ‘Dow 36,000’ in 1999 were defiantly early, but they may not be wrong (I covered last year when the DJIA crossed 18,000).

I’m not making a prediction, but if the DJIA grows by 7.7 percent over the next ten years (which is how much it grew over the last 10 years), we’ll be looking at Dow 43,000.

It’s hard to imagine, but it’s a realistic possibility.  There is an enormous range of options, and we always have to prepare for bad outcomes, but if history is any guide, we’ll continue to hit higher numbers, but just can’t say when.