The Great Minds of the Market: Charles Dow
by Alexander Green, Investment U Chief Investment Strategist
Monday, January 23, 2012: Issue #1692
This week I’m beginning a series about the great men and women – often unknown – who shaped the modern investment landscape.
Why should you care about these individuals, especially since many of them are dead? Because Sir Francis Bacon was right: Knowledge is power. This is especially true in the financial markets. And, as you’re about to learn, the type of knowledge you accumulate is likely to be a primary determinant of your success as an investor.
So let’s kick things off today with a man whose name is legendary on Wall Street:
Dow is a significant figure in the annals of financial history for two reasons. He created the first financial bible, The Wall Street Journal, and the first market barometer, the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In doing so, he revolutionized the way we talk about the financial markets.
(By the way, Charles Dow is sometimes credited with creating Dow Theory, too. This is not so. The market-timing strategy was extracted fom his WSJ editorials 20 years after his death by a market technician named William P. Hamilton.)
Charles Dow founded Dow Jones and Company with a partner in New York in 1882. At the time, most financial data was simply outdated news and unreliable gossip. But Dow Jones and Company published daily financial updates in a two-page newspaper called the Customers’ Afternoon Letter – The Wall Street Journal’s predecessor.
It was in the Letter that Dow first published his average, initially comprised of 14 companies – 12 railroads and two industrials.
Today the Dow consists of 30 large companies meant to reflect the U.S. economy. (There are, however, few holdings in heavy industry – and no railroads!) The average, price-weighted to compensate for stock splits and other adjustments, is the most closely watched benchmark for tracking stock market activity.
Yet the Dow is actually a poor representation of the broad market. If you’re looking to capture its performance, you’re much better off owning the better-diversified S&P 500 (NYSE: SPY) or the Wilshire 5000 (NYSE: TMW).
The most important thing we can learn from Charles Dow is the primacy of financial information. More than a hundred years ago, he realized that it was essential for investors to have not just opinions, rumors and forecasts, but verifiable facts. You simply must be well informed and up-to-date beyond this week’s headlines.
I’ve known investors who will buy a stock and not keep abreast of how the company is performing relative to its competitors, the direction of sales, or even the growth in profits. This is an act of faith, not rational investing.
Charles Dow created a daily business publication to give investors essential facts. Today, of course, you can get your financial news in real time off the internet. But the important data isn’t today’s government statistics or a new pronouncement by Ben Bernanke, but rather the hard numbers that tell us how individual businesses are performing.
The kind of investment news you accumulate is crucial. Listen to economic analysts, for example, and you’ll hear gloom and doom about high unemployment, the housing slump, consumer confidence, or problems in the Eurozone.
Listen to market analysts and you’ll hear trivia about short-term trends, changes in volume, support and resistance levels, and so on. This is not the type of information that will not make you rich.
But listen to business analysts today and you’ll hear plenty about corporate innovations, new medicines and technologies, and, not incidentally, all-time record corporate profits.
Is it any great surprise that investors who follow business news are making a lot of money in this market and those who listen to economic and market forecasts are sitting on their hands and earning miniscule returns?
Charles Dow knew better. And you should, too.