Finance: The Dow Jones Industrial Average Explained

The Dow Jones rises and falls on a daily basis. But what do these numbers mean? Take a look at the Dow 30, what they are, and what influences them.

We see the numbers nightly on the evening news. The Dow Jones Industrial Average may be up 100 points one day, down 30 the next. But what happens when the Dow rises 100 points? Is that a good day? Or just an average one? Measuring the markets can be a daunting task if you don't know what to look for.

Actually the Dow Jones Industrial Average (sometimes known as the Dow 30, the Blue Chips or just the Dow Jones) is only one of several markets on Wall Street. Every evening, with the Dow numbers, you may see the NASDAQ or the S&P 500. These are some of the other markets. But it is the Dow 30 that is the most recognized and most talked about market.

A journalist named Charles Dow first created the market indicator. In the late 1800's, people on Wall Street found it difficult to interpret the clutter of numbers tossed around on a daily basis. Some companies would be up an eighth of a point or down a half. It was easy to tell how a company was doing if it had a string of down days, but it was much more difficult to figure out how the market was doing as a whole. On May 26th, 1896, in an attempt to clear the confusion, Dow started putting out a nightly report in which he combined the daily results of 11 stocks. Railroad industries were the big traders of the day, but when utility companies started to come along, the number of industries in the report jumped to 20. Today, the Dow holds 30 companies. You probably recognize most of them. They are some of the biggest names in American business- General Motors, Microsoft, Coca Cola, 3M, Disney, IBM and Exxon are just a few. It is a rare occurrence for these businesses to change. Coca Cola has been listed since 1932. We've seen GE since 1907. This is why the Dow is the most talked about market on Wall Street. Because these are the most established business in the country, the Dow30 provides the best indicator of how the market, as a whole, is doing.

Historically, there have been good times and bad times for the Dow Jones. During the Great Depression, the markets were performing so poorly, and so many people were losing all the money they had, some turned to suicide. It was only after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II, that the markets started to turn around. The call for war supplies boosted many industries and secured their bottom line. During the economy boom of the late 90's, the Dow traded around 11,500. However, just a couple of years later, in the middle of an economical recession, it hovered around 7,500.

Daily, investors buy a tiny piece of these Blue Chip companies. These pieces are called shares. The value of these shares goes up or down depending on how many people buy or sell these shares. If several people buy shares of the company on a particular day, the value of one share will go up. If several people sell shares, the value will go down. For example, if you buy 1 share of "Company X" at $10, and over the course of the day, the value of the shares go up to $11, you just made $1. Many times, these numbers are reported in percentages. In this example, "Company X" gained 10%. However, if the value of the share goes down to $9, you lost $1 or 10%. Easy, isn't it? This is the simplest of examples, however. Companies in the Dow see millions and millions of shares exchanged in a single day. Generally, if the company is doing well, more people will buy shares, and the value will go up. However, there are several factors that decide if a company is doing well. If a report comes out stating "Company X" didn't reach their sales goals for a particular quarter, investors might see that as a bad sign and start selling shares. This would decrease the value of a share. If "Company X" surpassed their goals, investors will see that as a good sign and buy more shares, thus increasing the value. If only it were that easy. Because companies can't control what people think, many times companies have little control of the value of their company. For example, let's say both "Company Y" and "Company X" sell widgets. If "Company Y" sees a bad earnings report, investors might see that as a bad sign on the entire widget industry, and start selling their shares of "Company X" as well. World events also play a major role on how the markets do. Usually, these events have a negative affect on the market initially. Sometimes, the market recovers within a couple of months. Sometimes they don't. The day a gunman assassinated President Kennedy, the Dow fell 2.89%. A year later, the market gained 21.58%. The day the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed, the Dow gained .68%. One year later, it was up 14.07%. On 9/11, the market fell 7.12% and was still down 10.66% a year later.

Sometimes, companies reward their investors by splitting a portion of their profits. These are called dividends. If 10 people own 1 share of "Company X", and "Company X" makes a $100 profit, each investor would get $10. Again, this is the simplest of examples, as the Dow 30 companies each have millions and millions of outstanding shares. IBM, for example, has somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.7 billion outstanding shares. That means, a dividend for a single share is usually only around a couple of cents. So which companies offer dividends, and which don't? That's up to the Board of Directors of each company. Some companies share their profits. Others think it is a better business move to reinvest their profits to make the company better- thus raising the value of each share.

Many people spent hours a day studying companies that are poised to make a significant gain. The nice thing about the Dow 30 stocks is that these are usually a safe bet. Most people don't expect Coca Cola to go out of business any time soon. Even if they have a bad couple of quarters, these companies have proven leadership that will eventually turn the company around. They wouldn't have lasted all these years if they didn't. So with thousands and thousands companies trading on Wall Street, you now have a better understanding of what all those numbers mean, the next time you see them on the evening news.

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