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Dow surges to all-time record, erasing Great Recession losses

Washington, D.C., is in debt-defying political gridlock.

Main Street is still battling high unemployment and stagnant paychecks.

Over on Wall Street, they're partying like its 2007.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up nearly 126 points Tuesday to close at 14,253.77, breaking its all-time high set Oct. 9, 2007. The record came a mere four years after wallowing at a modern-day nadir of 6,457.

The last time the Dow was at these heights, the celebration was short-lived. Within two years, the housing crash and Great Recession caused the Dow to tumble by more than half.

Stock pickers are divided over where we are headed this time.

Here's a closer look at what the latest Dow milestone means:

What caused the Dow to hit a new high?

Strong corporate profits — bolstered by workers' increased productivity — and an improving economy helped the Dow. The Federal Reserve's money-printing policies were undeniably a huge factor, too.

The Federal Reserve pumped $3 trillion of liquidity into the system while simultaneously keeping interest rates low. Low rates meant investors have been facing depressed returns from traditionally safe vehicles like certificates of deposit — a factor that drove even more money into stocks.

Is this a market bubble?

That debate will only get more heated given the Dow's new heights.

In testimony before Congress last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, "I don't see much evidence of an equity bubble" due to the Fed's monetary policies. Earnings are very high, and equity holders are being risk-averse in their behavior, he said.

A bubble occurs when prices are severely out of line with value. That doesn't seem to be happening like, say, during the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. But it's hard to tell for sure how the Fed's intervention will ultimately affect the markets, especially when it stops pumping money into the system.

Have all 30 stocks included in the Dow Jones recovered?

Hewlett-Packard is the only stock in the index that is lower than it was four years ago, down 22 percent over the period.

Who's the biggest winner in the Dow?

American Express, up almost 500 percent from March 2009.

What has happened with the rest of the stock market?

More than 400 stocks on the New York Stock Exchange hit new yearly highs Tuesday.

Among other indexes, the two most closely watched in addition to the Dow are the Standard & Poor's 500, representing the 500 highest-value U.S. stocks, and the technology-focused Nasdaq.

The S&P 500 is at a five-year high and just 2 percent shy of a record. The Nasdaq has likewise enjoyed a steady climb since 2009, up more than 150 percent. However, it's still nowhere near its high of 5,049 in 2000 before the dot-com bust.

How have Tampa Bay area stocks fared?

Several of the biggest bay area public companies in 2007 are gone. Some have been bought by bigger firms (Global Imaging Systems; Lincare Holdings), and some moved their headquarters away (Walter Energy). Then there's the parent company of Outback Steakhouse, which was publicly traded in 2007 (then called OSI Partners), went private, and recently went public again trading under the new parent name of Bloomin' Brands.

Of the remaining stalwarts, three of the top five have regained and surpassed their 2007 levels. The best of the bunch: TECO Energy and Raymond James Financial, up 41 percent and 42 percent, respectively, from six years ago.

Is this really a record?

Purists might point out that if inflation were factored in, the Dow would have to surpass 15,500 to be on par with 2007's record. Comparing a given company's stock price over time is also deceptive without accounting for dividends that have been paid out.

Why is there a disconnect between jobs and the stock markets?

Beyond the impact of the Federal Reserve, stocks have been rising on improved corporate profits. Companies have become more productive by getting more work out of fewer employees. That's a recipe for lower costs and higher profits, but not necessarily a recipe that spurs job creation.

The stock market by nature has been a leading indicator, rising before the broader economy improves and falling before a recession takes hold.

How does this compare with the recovery after the infamous market crash of the late 1920s?

The stock market crash of 2008/2009 was painful, but it was not as bad as what happened to stocks during the Great Depression. In the aftermarket of the '29 crash, stocks lost up to 89 percent of their value. Back then, it took 25 years before the markets recovered to precrash levels.

Times wires and Times research were used in this report.

Not the same Dow

The Dow Jones is made up of a mix of 30 "blue chip stocks." Today's Dow 30 is substantially different from the 2007 version that was around to witness the last high:

. On February 19, 2008, Chevron and Bank of America replaced Altria Group and Honeywell.

. On September 22, 2008, Kraft Foods replaced the American International Group (AIG).

. On June 8, 2009, General Motors and Citigroup were replaced by the Travelers Cos. and Cisco Systems.

. On Sept. 24, 2012, UnitedHealth Group replaced Kraft Foods.

Dow surges to all-time record, erasing Great Recession losses 03/05/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 11:19am]
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