Dow index detaches from reality

The Economy

April 04, 1999|By JAY HANCOCK

DOW 10,000? Ignore those headlines.

"The Economy" is here to tell you that the Dow Jones industrial average has been propped up by shadowy East Coast power brokers who have a big stake in the bull market.

No, not the Fed.

The Dow was "adjusted" March 17, 1997, by the people who invented it: Dow Jones & Co., publishers of the Wall Street Journal. A committee of green-eyeshade types juiced the lineup, blackballing four down-at-heel Dow members and picking ringers as replacements.

Out went Bethlehem Steel, Woolworth, Texaco and Westinghouse. In came Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard and Travelers. One eighth of the Dow membership changed that day, but you'd never know it from looking at those mountainous Dow graphs. The plot line rises unbroken, one pure Dow, as it was and ever shall be.

Without the switch, by my calculation, the Dow would have been near 9,000 last week. Not 10,000.

Bethlehem Steel is worth $8 a share these days -- same as two years ago. Woolworth, now called Venator, sells for $7, one third its 1997 value. Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson is up by half. Wal-Mart has tripled. The new ingredients added some fizz.

It's no crime. Dow Jones has been fiddling with the blend of 30 firms since shortly after the index was created and included companies like U.S. Rubber and National Lead. The 1997 change was only the latest of many.

The Dow is supposed to reflect big business, the thinking goes, and these days big business is more about computers and financial products than oil wells and dime stores.

Here's the point: By discriminating against sunset companies and favoring growing ones, the Dow has a selection bias as big as Manhattan. The Dow is not the economy. It's not even the stock market. It's a slice of the stock market as seen by a few people in New York who "could run into somebody in the men's room" to start talking about the next Dow makeover, as index editor John Prestbo told Fortune magazine.

Science it ain't.

What's more, there is some conflict of interest. Don't make too much of this, but the ascent of Dow Jones the index clearly helps Dow Jones the company.

While the Dow is up more than 10 percent in the past year, Standard & Poor's index of 400 mid-size U.S. companies is flat, and S&P's 600 smaller-company index has plunged by a fifth.

"The Dow has been given this life of its own. The higher it goes, the better," said Donald J. Cunningham, a professor in the educational psychology department at Indiana University. "It is kind of like this religious symbol, in that we're bowing to it."

Cunningham is director of IU's Center for Applied Semiotics. Semiotics is the study of symbol, sign and metaphor; its most famous practitioner is novelist Umberto Eco. As any semiotician can tell you, the totems that lend meaning and direction to our days aren't necessarily the same as reality.

"You have to have stories you tell about the way things are," Cunningham said. "Whether or not they are true isn't really important."

Take the Dow. "The numbers mean nothing," Cunningham said. "You can re-sort the stocks. Ten thousand is as meaningless as 32 on the temperature scale. What does it mean? If you convert to Celsius, nothing. Well, somehow we have equated this Dow index with the health of our economy."

Cunningham isn't the first person to connect stocks with religion. "The Market as God" is the title of Harvey Cox's recent article in Atlantic Monthly.

French mathematician Blaise Pascal argued that rational people should believe in God because if you bet on God and he's real, the rewards are infinite. And if God is not real, there's no downside.

You can't say that about the Dow.

But salvation feels good meanwhile. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, er, men's room stall.

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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