The Meaning of the Dow Jones Industrial Average

Mickey writes in:

In the last week, the Dow Jones Industrial average closed at a thirteen month high and, at the same time, unemployment hit double digits for the first time since the early eighties. I thought that the Dow Jones was supposed to represent how the economy was doing, but that’s not the case. What does it mean? What is the point of reporting it if it doesn’t mean anything?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (often called “the Dow” for short) is an incredibly common piece of news, yet the purpose of it is often really unclear to newswatchers. Is it an indication of the state of the economy? Not really. Is it an indication of the state of the stock market? Not really.

Well, then, what is it? And why does it get reported so often?

What Is the Dow?
The “Dow” usually refers to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It was invented by Charles Dow, a co-founder of Dow Jones & Company, which is a publishing and information company.

The “Dow” is simply an average of the value of one share each of thirty of the largest companies in the United States. It does not include any of the thousands of other publicly traded companies.

Of course, a bit of math checking would reveal that if you added up the current market value of a share of each of the thirty companies in the Dow and divided by thirty, you would not get a number anywhere close to the current value of the Dow. There are several reasons for this, but the most important reason is that companies sometimes choose to split their stocks, basically exchanging two new shares for one old share (or some similar exchange). In order to make sure that such an exchange doesn’t wreck the value of the Dow (because that would effectively mean one of the thirty companies just had a single share of their stock drop by half), Dow Jones & Company accounts for it by using a scaled average, in which they effectively keep track of past splits and multiply the values of each share accordingly. Thus, even when a company splits their stock, it doesn’t affect the Dow average at all.

So, basically, the Dow is just a quick summary of the current value of shares of thirty large companies.

The Value of a Share
But what is the current value of a share?

In simplest terms, it’s all about supply and demand, just like buying and selling anything. The stock market is basically no different than a giant flea market, with many, many people buying and selling thousands of items, all trying to make a profit. Depending on the news (and the behavior of others), the price of individual items goes up and down.

In simplest terms, if there are more people buying than selling, the price of a share goes up. If there are more people selling than buying, the price of a share goes down.

What causes this shift? Information about a given company or about the economy in general. Predictions about what the future holds. The behaviors of others. All of these affect whether people are buying at the moment or selling at the moment.

The Value of the Dow
In effect, the Dow is just an average of thirty items from this giant flea market. What information can we get from that?

Generally, it’s not ruled by news from one specific company. One company’s bad news can affect it a little, but not enough to make a huge difference.

It’s also not affected too much by how things are going right now. It’s important to remember that when people buy and sell stocks, they’re doing it based on what they think the future price holds. Thus, the value of the Dow will often go down well before real economic news (like the unemployment rate) turns bad, and the value of the Dow will often go up well before real economic news turns good.

To put it simply, at the first sign the economy is slowing at all – or that one sector is seeing real problems – the Dow will begin to drop, and often rapidly. At the first sign that a recession is slowing even a bit, the Dow will begin to go up, and often rapidly (and that’s what’s happening right now).

So, look at the Dow as a predictor, nothing more, nothing less. It’s a predictor of the general direction of the economy over the next year or so. If the stock market is going up – as it is right now – the economy will generally improve from its current state over the next year.