What Does Dow 12,000 Mean For The Economy?

Stocks on Wall Street have been moving steadily upward lately. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has been trading up above 12,000 — though it closed just below that Thursday. The market hasn't been at this level since before the financial crisis.

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If you'd like some more upbeat reading, you could turn to the latest stock market reports.

Stocks have been moving steadily upward. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has been trading right around 12,000. The market hasn't been at that level in more than two years, since before the financial crisis.

NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD: The Dow Industrials tracks the stock prices of 30 big companies. Those firms represent a cross section of the economy. Theres manufacturing, the airplane maker Boeing, and the high tech company Cisco Systems. Theres drug companies, Pfizer and Merck, and others, ATT, DuPont, Caterpillar. So those stocks, taken together, have recovered a lot of ground. In fact, they've nearly doubled from where they were at the depths of the crisis. But what does that mean for the economy or the average person with a retirement account?

Unidentified Woman (Reporter): We're knocking on the door of Dow 12,000, so how do you...

ARNOLD: If you'd turned on the financial news channel CNBC this week, you might have found yourself wishing that you had a translator. Most people can wrap their head around the Dow Industrials Average, but after that, things can get a lot more complicated pretty fast.

Unidentified Woman: What would you advise to do right now, Dave?

DAVE: I'm seeing a lot of volume picking up in the VSX, which is the Vick's short-term ETF. But I would also recommend playing some reversion to the mean.

ARNOLD: This is really confusing.

DAVE: Maybe start taking some money out of the queues. You know, but why don't we rotate maybe into the KB, to the money center banks or the IYR, the wreaths. We're starting to see renewed confidence in the CNBS market (unintelligible)...

Mr. DAVID KOTOK (Economist, Chief Investment Officer, Cumberland Advisors): He's speaking a foreign language. I understand what he said.

ARNOLD: David Kotok is an economist and chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors. He manages billions of dollars for pension funds and other investors. He says when you blow away all the jargon, it's actually pretty simple: some investors out there are worried that the Dow is rising to the point where it might get ahead of itself now and fall back again.

And there's all sorts of complicated-sounding stuff that professionals do to hedge their risk. But Kotok himself is more optimistic.

Mr. KOTOK: In my opinion, the Dow will go through the 12,000 and may reach 13,000, although it might take a year to do it.

ARNOLD: Kotok says the Dow 12,000 takeaway for him, is that the market thinks that the economy is moving in the right direction and continuing to recover. Profits are strengthening, so the market's rising - that is, as long as nothing really bad happens anytime soon.

Mr. KOTOK: A big shock, like a $150 oil price or a bird flu pandemic or a war in Iran.

ARNOLD: As far as average investors, Kotok says the Dow at 12,000 signals something else: if people got scared and pulled money out of stocks - and a lot of people did that - and now they want to get back in...

Mr. KOTOK: The easy money in the stock market has been made. Fifty percent gains from your purchases are over.

Mr. SCOTT CLELAND (Precursor LLC): Dow 12,000 is a milestone.

ARNOLD: Scott Cleland with Precursor LLC is an industry consultant. He says the Dow may have come a long way back, but...

Mr. CLELAND: The economy is nowhere near back and employment is not back where it was.

ARNOLD: Cleland explains that big companies have been able to be profitable again by cutting jobs and trimming other expenses. But he says the housing market, the jobs market, those remain pretty ravaged by the recession and are only very slowly recovering. Still, the rising stock market is bound to cheer up a lot of average people who've been watching their retirement accounts get back up at least close to where they were before the stock market imploded.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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