Wall Street gains are not shared by all
Behind the bull market that drove Wall Street to a record high on Tuesday is a startling gulf in the fortunes of some of the US's largest corporations.
The peak came almost exactly four years after the Dow Jones sank to a low of 6547.05 in March 2009, during the depths of the financial crisis. But not every blue-chip stock has bounced back. In fact, 12 of the 30 stocks in the Dow industrials are still down from their peaks, some of them spectacularly so.
That the Dow industrials could nonetheless advance to a record reflects how big gains in certain stocks, such as McDonald's and IBM, have more than offset large losses for others, such as Bank of America and Alcoa.
While other trends have emerged within the broader market - consumer-related stocks have fared relatively well, for instance, while financials and telecoms have done more poorly - the divergence within the Dow points to a shift in financial power among the bluest of the blue chips.
"Stocks individually trade kind of the same in the short term, but over longer periods of time, the truth will out," Nicholas Colas, the chief market strategist at BNY ConvergEx, said.
No member of the Dow industrials has done better since the last peak than Home Depot. Shares of the company are 108 per cent higher than they were in October 2007, and the company's market value has risen by $US50 billion.
Home Depot has benefited from a nascent recovery in the housing market, but much of the increase has come since chief executive Frank Blake trimmed its expansion in China and instituted a new focus on customer relations.
Because of quirks in how the Dow is calculated, it is IBM that accounted for the biggest slice of the Dow's gain - 12 per cent of it to be specific, according to Howard Silverblatt, an analyst at Standard & Poor's. Even as other big technology stocks like Cisco have struggled, IBM has gained 75 per cent since 2007.
The run for IBM reflects the decision of Samuel Palmisano, the chief executive until last year, to shift the company's focus to software from personal computers.
On the other end of the Dow is Alcoa. The aluminum producer has struggled as expectations for growth in the developing world have dimmed, stifling demand for commodities. Its stock is still down 79 per cent from the market peak.
Bank of America fared only slightly better because of the legacy of the financial crisis and housing collapse. Even after it was bailed out by Washington, the bank has been hampered by subprime loans made before the crisis, as well as bad acquisitions, such as the purchase of the subprime mortgage lender Countrywide in 2008. Bank of America is today worth half what it was five years ago.
JPMorgan Chase, by contrast, made an early exit from the subprime mortgage market and consequently has emerged from the financial crisis stronger than many of its competitors, positioning itself as the nation's largest and most powerful bank. Its shares are up 4 per cent since October 2007.
The Dow's winners and losers are a reminder of how the nation's uneven economic recovery is playing out in the business world, and suggests the caution of investors even as the market has rallied.
The search for safe stocks has led investors to companies that do well even in a tough economy, such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. When it appeared that the European debt crisis might drag the world into a double-dip recession, there was an assumption that consumers would still buy shampoo and toothpaste.
Even as the economic recovery has taken root, it has not helped lift the incomes of ordinary Americans. This has been a boon for companies that market lower-cost goods, such as McDonald's and Wal-Mart. Both stocks are trading more than 60 per cent higher than in 2007.
Consumer stocks are also being helped by the heftier portfolios of wealthier Americans, who do a disproportionate amount of buying.