The uneven benefits arising from political certainty: A bad political environment will hurt your portfolio, but a healthy and beneficial political situation is only a prerequisite for investing success
A lot of people in finance and the investing world love to talk about politics and the geopolitical environment. They say how important it is for there to be a stable geopolitical environment for economies to perform well. This is true, but it leaves out too many vital details - a more useful understanding can easily be obtained.
Geopolitical certainty is less a beneficial item for investing and economic success - it's more of a prerequisite for a stable economy and an attractive environment for business. Geopolitical certainty is more of a necessary condition for good things to happen, NOT a sufficient condition. This means you need political certainty and a healthy geopolitical environment for business and the economy to be strong, BUT having a great political climate won't really help your portfolio.
The reason for this uneven distribution of benefits is because stocks aren't valued based on the geopolitical landscape - they are valued based on anticipated future cash flows, discounted at appropriate discount rates. Politics can influence this a bit, but far more so in the negative direction than in the positive one.
So, don't overdo it on how much you focus on politics, the global political landscape, and how this might impact your portfolio. A better approach is to monitor for signs of a terrible geopolitical situation on the horizon while prudently picking excellent investments to put your money in.
Economic recoveries and bull markets move slowly; recessions and downturns move fast. So, be prepared...
Do you think that once a recession looms on the horizon, you'll be able to make preparatory moves to sustain your financial investments and your portfolio? If so, you're probably wrong. You're taking on too much risk and not effectively managing the risk within your portfolio and your financial life if you naively think that pre-recession prep isn't necessary.
Recessions come too quickly for most people - it'll probably be the same for you
Too often, people fail to take prudent steps to prep for recessions, market corrections, or economic downturns - they think they'll see the signs close to it and will be able to make the needed financial adjustments. This is incredibly hard to do, however, and most people fail at it.
The main reason it's hard to do is that, unlike economic recoveries and expansions, recessions come quickly and don't tend to give warning signs until after things are already bad (so, they're not really warning signs in this case).
There's too much prep work to do pre-recession
There is too much to be done to prep for a recession, and there might not be enough time to do it if you wait for some sort of warning sign to begin. These things may include the following:
The above items are essential if you want to both protect your financial and non-financial worlds during a recession. It's also important if you're going to thrive post-recession because of recessions, market corrections, and economic downturns bring asset prices down. The smartest investors are those who are eagerly awaiting a recession with a list of quality firms and other assets to buy up at low prices.
It's hard to find great firms at any time
Generally, quality firms are those who have healthy balance sheets, strong and growing earnings, proper management, and are engaged in businesses that are not readily open to competitive entrants. This is an entire field of study, however, and there isn't enough room in a single article to even begin to delve into this topic.
Sometimes luck gets in the way of us achieving our financial goals. Other times, we get in our own way. Don't make these classic financial mistakes - they have significant long-term consequences to your financial life.
1. Buy into the financial markets during market euphoria and sell out during the middle of an economic downturn: Far too often, people buy high and sell low instead of the often-stated "buy low, sell high" mantra. This has a lot to do with behavioral psychology and cognitive biases. A surefire way to take substantial steps backward in your financial life is to buy stocks (or any other asset) during a boom only to sell during a recession - this will result in capital losses, which are devastating to your financial portfolio.
2. Keep no cash cushion for the unexpected: Without a cash cushion (often called an emergency or rainy day fund), you'll need to sell less-liquid assets during harsh times for you and your family. Harsh times almost always do come, so neglecting to have a proper emergency fund in place will likely mean you'll end up selling assets at non-ideal times. Non-ideal is a good scenario. In fact, you could end up having to sell during a market correction or a full-blow recession (where asset prices can quickly drop by 50%). You can't afford to sustain such capital losses - having a cushion of money set aside as an emergency fund will protect you from this.
3. Fail to invest your savings: The first step to building wealth is saving - if you can't put money aside, you're going to have a hard time building real wealth in a sustainable and lasting way. Some people can save well, but they are afraid of investing. These people are often diligent and reasonably hard-working adults who don't like to take perceived risks. What they don't realize, however, is that for the most part, saving alone is not enough - you must invest your money at reasonable rates of return so that it may grow. Without growth, your wealth will only depend on your ability to earn income, and every year your wealth will slowly be eaten away by inflation.
One of the most significant risks related to house flipping is holding period market risk - it's the risk that during the time in which you're holding the property you intend to "flip," the property value will decline.
The decline in property value can be caused by a variety of reasons (macro recessions, localized events, etc.), but that's not the point of this short piece. The point being made here is that house flipping exposes the "flippers" to significant market risk.
Not taking this real estate market risk to which you're exposed to when pursuing a house flipping strategy into proper account and consideration may have some serious negative consequences. The negative consequences are rare - they only arise in market downturns, which happen once every number of years. But, although the chances of the risk coming to fruition are small, the severity of the negative consequences (should there be a real estate market decline) are severe. The consequences can be severe enough to wipe out investors that are not well-capitalized and in positions of strong liquidity.
This is pretty easy to see if we think about a hypothetical example. Let's say you're doing house flipping and you buy a $200,000 property. The timeline might look something like this:
The risk exposure continues until you sell the house. So, in the above example with the relatively rapid renovation and resale (likely in a good real estate market; very unlikely in a real estate downturn), the investor or flipper would be exposed to market risk arising from adverse moves in the real estate market for at least a few months. If the investor is new, inexperienced, or doesn't have a lot of capital/liquidity in reserve, things might be over in one serious real estate or economic downturn.
If you're holding a property that's worth less than you bought it for -- even with the improvements you made or might make -- you'll have to (1) either accept a loss on this investment or (2) you'll have to continue making mortgage payments on the note until the market recovers.
In the first case, you'd lose real money - you'd possibly lose your entire down payment and in the worst scenarios you might be so underwater that you'd have to add additional funds to be able to get rid of it. This isn't far-fetched. Many people all across the United States experienced this during the Great Recession that started in 2007/8.
In the second case, you'd avoid having a severe capital loss, but you'd have to outlay money every month to keep the mortgage note current. This can be costly, especially if this is done for many months or even many years.
Of course, you might have bought the house in cash - in that case, you still may experience a severe loss (you'll just never be underwater on the mortgage). Renting might also help mitigate the risk - if there's a downturn, you might abandon your initial house flipping strategy and put a tenant(s) in the property for several months or years to help with the mortgage payments.
A prudent house flipper or potential house flipper would take these risks into account. Everything is exposed to risk, so this article isn't attempting to say that real estate investing in general, or house flipping specifically, are imprudent investments or that there's undue risk in a house flipping strategy. The article simply attempts to highlight a particular type of risk that house flippers are and will be exposed to.
With each economic cycle in modern economies, we experience the same thing - there's a boom, then a bust, then a recovery, and then another boom...
It's typical after a long period of growth for investors, the financial media, and your everyday Joe Shmo to start thinking that a recession looms on the horizon. But, recessions don't like fear - people freaking out doesn't usually beckon a recession.
In actuality, recessions are more often seen right after periods of intense euphoria in the economic and financial worlds. These times are marked by excessive optimism and a fear of missing out (FOMO) by many market participants. During such times you'll hear people traditionally not involved in finance or investing talking about investing - this is markedly different than how people act during times of fear or caution.
Thinking that a recession is near when most others think this is an error in most cases - one likely based on not understanding financial market history well enough. Although real panics will very likely have macroeconomic consequences (and might cause a recession or even a depression), general but relatively subdued caution and fear is not likely going to be the cause of a recession. It's when people expect it the least do macroeconomic downturns start to brew.
Cities vs. Nations - Cities have been and will continue to be the true drivers of economic growth and development in the 21st Century
Nations and countries are illusions at the most basic level of reality. Cities are too, but far less so. Where the idea of a nation like the United States exists only in our minds, the idea of a big city like NYC or Los Angeles exists both in our minds and in the immediate world around us.
Cities are were life and economics happen:
Cities are where stuff happens - countries have cities and benefit from them, but can you name things that happen economically in a country but that doesn't happen in a city? Asked differently, what can you point to that's economically beneficial that, at its core, is something that happens in a country but not in a city? It's hard to think of an answer because most economically beneficial activity happens within cities themselves - nations benefit, but it's not within the nation that these things originate. Think about this another way - if you're city was run by idiot monsters who made only bad decisions, what could the national government do to fix things? The answer - not much.
When news businesses are started, when new museums and coffee shops open up, when ideas are created and implemented, or when intelligent and driven entrepreneurs drive intense economic growth in an area, it's all city-based. Cities are the economic engine of the modern world and, therefore, way more focus should be placed on cities and far less focus should be placed on nations.
If people focused as much on mayoral and city council elections as they do on Presidential races, we'd start creating better cities. A city like Detroit, for example, will never be improved because of national decisions - more granular decisions at the city level (and by people who understand local dynamics) are required. People must take city life and the responsibilities that come with being part of an urban community far more seriously in the 21st century - through that, the nation will become great on its own.
Check out a UN Habitat piece on the economic role of cities here - it's an interesting piece on how cities are the driver of economic growth globally in today's world.
Focus on primary news sources when consuming news - don't let others do the filtering and thinking for you
We have come to the point of absurdity in terms of news consumption - far too many people consume news from secondary (or tertiary) sources instead of going directly to primary sources. This is tragic because primary sources are more easily-available today via the internet than ever before.
What are primary news sources?
Primary news sources include the following:
There are implicit (sometimes explicit) biases in secondary and tertiary news source
Secondary and tertiary sources take primary source information and do things to it - this may include analysis, synthesis, etc., but, all secondary and tertiary sources include something extra. That extra stuff can be incredibly useful and interesting, but it is also removed from the primary source in some way.
In today's world, a lot of news-related secondary (and tertiary sources) still provide interpretation, summarization, and synthesis. However, they also very often add in heavy doses of bias. This bias may be implicit or explicit, but it seems to be ever more present as Big Media can leverage Big Data and create far more granular approach; social networks like Facebook and Twitter do this too. Where 25 years ago, everyone tuned in to the same few news channels on TV, today, every single person in the Western world can have a customized/tailored Facebook or Twitter feed. These feeds can become deeply biased as a result of tech firms' attempts to get more eyeballs for longer periods of time.
Watching primary news can seem very strange to a person who only consumes secondary and tertiary news sources. The initial reaction can vary, but it is often one of surprise at how different and "more real" consuming primary news it. People are surprised at how the world really is vs. how they typically see the world presented in heavily-biased secondary and tertiary news sources.
Primary news sources lead to clearer perspectives on what really is happening in the world
To have a clear mind and understand the world, one can't rely only on secondary and tertiary news sources. Especially terrible is relying on free secondary and tertiary news sources - in these cases, the reader is, in fact, the product and the source of the secondary or tertiary news have no real responsibility to the reader (either from a moral, fiduciary, or economic perspective). This, however, is a topic for another time.
Jamie Dimon Steps Back from Harsh Crypto Comments - Another Indication that the Traditional Financial World's Hatred of Cryptoassets is Slowly Beginning to Thaw
.Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, stepped down from his comments he made in late 2017. In September of 2017, Dimon said that Bitcoin is a "fraud" and that he would fire people who worked for him if they traded in the cryptocurrency.
bitcoin is a fraud
Many in the cryptoasset and cryptocurrency community were unhappy about such remarks coming form a very senior person in the financial and banking world. Many in the financial world, including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, hesitated even during that time in 2017 to make extremely harsh criticism of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. They didn't make extremely harsh criticisms, but they still criticized it.
Blankfein said in November of 2017 that "maybe Bitcoin is kind of a bubble" but he also said that "the list of things that are conventional today that I use every day that I thought would never make it is a very long list."
the list of things that are conventional today that I use every day that I thought would never make it is a very long list
On Tuesday, January 9, however, Jamie Dimon said that he regretted calling Bitcoin a fraud - he added that he feels the "blockchain is real." These statements were likely prompted by various things, including the rise in cryptocurrency and cryptoasset prices since Dimon made that original statement. However, it's likely that pressure on Wall St. to not be the pariah of the crypto world also had something to do with it. Finally, it's possible that Dimon simply took some time to learn more about cryptocurrency and cryptoassets - after that learning he might have a better opinion of the overall technology behind it.
the blockchain is real
While many want to look down upon Dimon for going back on his remarks or for not being on the mark back in 2017, this isn't a smart way to think about things. Incentives matter a lot - this is basic economics. Jamie Dimon is the CEO of one of the world's largest financial institutions - he is the epitome of the entrenched establishment in the global financial world. No one who is not naive should be surprised that such a person would make negative comments about something that could potentially disrupt his entire industry - an industry he devoted his life to. Instead, it's promising that he took a step toward setting things right.
There have been 22 recessions since the turn of the 20th century -- see the table below for a list of all of them (sourced from here) -- and we have currently experienced one of the longest expansion in US history as of early 2017 - by June 2017 we will have experienced an 8-year expansion (almost 96 months) - this is the third longest bull market in over 100 years. Clearly at some point within the next 2 to 5 years, we're going to experience a recession.
This article isn't about 2017 or this latest bull market, however - it's about the economy in general and the fact that things so far have been cyclical. Given the last century of markets, we can safely assume things will continue more or less the same way unless deep structural changes cause some sort of change. These types of changes might be:
Until those things happen, a prudent person would assume a recession will occur when a bull market has been going on for a long time.
Can you predict when a recession will happen? NO.
Can you predict how bad the recession will be? NO.
BUT, can you reasonably assume there will be one? YES.
Now, why are we writing this piece? Doesn't it seem obvious? Well, in fact, there are generally two schools of thought in personal finance and investing when it comes to recessions - neither of which are healthy for most people to adopt:
What's a better option? The better way is to simply observe things in light of historical data and without trying to quantify things. In this observation, you need to be incredibly humble of your lack of ability to really predict much but you still need to be mindful of the length of bull market runs. As the run gets longer - as Year 1 turns into Year 5 and then turns into Year 8 of a bull market you will want to
Most people will sell during a recession - usually after having purchased at the previous highs in a euphoric frenzy. You, however, should be sitting calmly with a pile of cash ready to buy excellent stocks at very low prices. In the meantime, you'll still want to be investing - you don't want to stop investing and wait for a recession because you can't rally predict when it will come and you don't want to spend years sitting around waiting without getting any market returns.
Be wary of those individuals who try to predict things too much, in fact, add a lot of risk to the equality. The risk comes from the false assurance they provide themselves or others - it is better to wisely understand your total lack of knowledge about something than to confidently go forward when ou really don't understand something. As Mark Twain so eloquently stated: "It ain't what you don't know that kills you, it's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
You can't predict when a recession will hit, but you can be sure that a recession will come at some point. Speculation on the exact timing is a fool's proposition, but indicators exist to indicate when the overall market is overvalued and when a recession is more likely. Preparation for a recession is wise and simply ignoring overall market valuations will cause you to (1) not be ready to take advantage of investing opportunities a recession presents and (2) be potentially exposed in troubling ways due to improper diversification. The below 3 strategies are excellent ways to prepare for a recession.
1. Start Piling Away Cash for Cheap Stock Purchases When the Recession Hits
Cash is dry powder to investors and without some set aside you simply won't be able to take advantage of a recession. Cash will allow you to buy good stocks at deep discounts when the market falls during a recession.
Do you notice how the first thing we're advocating in terms of recession preparation is something that will allow you to buy more stocks instead of something that is meant to protect you? Obviously, you want to be protected in severely adverse market circumstances as an investor, but the most important thing about a recession isn't what it does to your portfolio in the short term, but the potential it has to boost your portfolio in the long term. A recession allows you to buy a lot of good quality companies at deep discounts - sometimes you see a price to earnings (P/E) ratios of indices such as the S&P 500 can drop below 10, indicating an extremely undervalued market overall.
Without having cash piled up ready to toss into good companies -- it's key that you only buy good companies -- you will miss out on potentially outsized gains due to inevitable market recoveries. The great thing about recessions is that you don't even have to pick individual stocks - something that is not recommended for novice investors or those with low-risk tolerances. Purchasing indexes (eg. S&P 500 or the Dow Jones) via broad mutual funds or ETFs will allow you to at once diversify and benefit from future recoveries. Purchasing the Dow Jones at the bottom of the 2007/2008 Great Recession would have created a 300% + return over the course of a decade without having to take on the risks of owning single stocks or having to put in the effort to pick them.
When the market seems overvalued in terms of market P/E ratios, in terms of timeframe since the last recession, or in terms of high-quality research/opinions, it might be a good idea to slightly pull back on some of the more speculative investing you're doing to put aside cash. You'll want enough cash so that you can comfortably enter positions at lows and then continue buying more and more if markets continue to drop. This abundance of cash will allow you not to think about timing the market -- something that you will not be able to do -- but will instead allow for an aggressive dollar cost averaging strategy once things start to decline until things start to turn up again.
2. Properly Diversify Your Portfolio so it Can Withstand a Recession
To make your portfolio more resilient to recession declines you'll want to diversify across:
You don't want to hold just US firm and you don't want to hold firms only in a single industry (eg. tech). Instead, you want to hold a broad portfolio of high-quality firms from around the world and from different industries. Some regions and industries will be more resilient than others and this will affect your portfolio. additionally, some firms will go bankrupt in recessions - hopefully, you don't own any such firms because you've done proper due diligence but some things are very hard to predict. You'll want to not be tied to a single industry, a single location, or a single firm when the market turns downward so that a single disastrous event will not affect more than a small portion of your portfolio and so that you can survive as an investor into the recovery.
A great way to diversify is through the use of mutual funds and ETFs, but diversification is also achievable through simply building your own high-quality stock for experienced investors - moderately experienced investors should not try this (novice investors shouldn't even think about this).
3. Buy Protective Puts on the Market (ONLY FOR ADVANCED INVESTORS)
If you don't know what a protective put is, this section is not for you at all and you should skip tot he end of the article.
If you do know what a protective put is but wouldn't be properly considered an advanced or experienced investor, you can read this section but you should not engage in this activity because it could cause a needless drain on your portfolio and a false sense of security.
If you're an advanced investor, you probably already know this strategy, but we'll remind you again. Protective puts are simply put options - they are called protective because of the context they are being used in. You can buy such protective puts on the overall market via market proxy (eg. S&P 500) in order to profit from market declines.
One way to execute such as strategy is to buy monthly out-of-the-money puts on the market proxy via a mutual fund or more likely an ETF. These should be out-of-the-money because what you're buying here is a form of insurance in case the market drops significantly - you're not trying to speculate. Out-of-the-money puts will be worthless if the market goes up or doesn't move much but will increase in value in a significant market decline. You can buy them for a reasonable term - monthly, quarterly, yearly but shorter repetitive purchases might be better because you're less exposed to the option's time decay.
If you're invested in the stock market -- be it with an individual portfolio, through an IRA, through a robot-advisor, or through a 401k -- you should know that markets will decline, economies will suffer, and your portfolio value will decrease. You can try to create a situation for yourself where you won't be exposed to the volatility of the markets, but the only real way to do this is to not be invested in equities at all - by entering the markets you're implicitly accepting a certain amount of short-term volatility that could cause you to see your portfolio drop by quite a bit. It's how you handle this drop that determines your resiliency as an investor and, in the long-run, that determines whether or not you're a successful investor.
Recessions Will Occur and Markets Will Decline
First, it's key that you understand that market will decline - you can't hide from this unless you're not invested in equities. If you only hold cash or fixed income securities (eg. bonds), you can safely ignore market prices on equities. In the case of cash, you don't care about the market either way. In the case of bonds -- although bonds can of course rise and fall in value based on credit worthiness and interest rates -you generally are more concerned with the ability of the borrower (eg. sovereign government, municipality, or firm) to pay as the agreed-upon schedule. If you hold stocks, however, you are exposed to two key factors:
Exiting the Stock Market at a Macroeconomic Downturn is One of the Greatest Mistakes an Investor Can Make
Imagine you own your house outright in 2007 and then in 2008 through 2010 the housing market starts to decline as it did in the US. Would you sell your paid-for house after seeing a drop in real estate prices of 30% or more? Clearly, that would be idiotic if you didn't need the money for something specific. Why, then, do so many investors feel so inclined to sell their stocks after a market drop? Just as with a paid-for house, you own your stocks outright unless you bought them on margin (highly unlikely for most retail investors).
Adding a mortgage on the house makes the situation riskier and it is, therefore, more understandable that you might need to sell your house in an economic downturn (eg. income loss). However, people are still far more inclined to sell losing stock positions in a macroeconomic downturn than they are to sell their mortgaged house. This doesn't make any rational sense and it represents a fundamental flaw in the way most people approach their portfolios.
Now, if something fundamental changes - meaning one of the following:
THEN you can be justified in existing a position. In this case, you'll be exiting, not because of a macroeconomic decline, but because of a macroeconomic change to your world of the stock you're holding.
In other circumstances, however, existing a previously good position is just foolish and will lead you to underperform the market over the long term. Additionally, you'll be effectively shooting yourself in the foot - you will be purposely selling off at the worst possible time instead of holding out a bit for a far better market scenario where a more fair value can be obtained for your investing.
Play Mind Games With Yourself to Prepare for the Inevitable Market Decline
One of the greatest ways to prepare for the inevitable market collapse (if you still think that this won't happen you need to go back and diligently study investing history before you proceed any further into the markets) is not use the same tactic elite athletes use to prepare themselves for competition - mental visualizations of game day with a focus on the desired outcome and the challenges that will likely be faced.
Elite athletes focus on the win, but they also visualize and understand the pain and the suffering that game day will likely entail. Instead of being optimistically naive, they in advance fully understand how difficult game day will be, they accept that difficulty fully, and they commit to persevering in spite of it.
Applying that same theory to your investing life you might want to visualise the goals you want to achieve (eg. the return you want to obtain over time or the number you want to hit in your portfolio) but you also will want to sit down and imagine how a 10% market drop will feel, how a 25% market drop will feel, and how a 50% market drop will feel.
Typically a 10% market decline will occur once every couple of years, a 25% market decline will occur once every decade or two, and a 50% market decline will occur up to a few times in your investing life. Failing to prepare for this almost inevitable circumstance could cause you to sell at a 50% market drop - clearly a very unpleasant outcome if waiting just a few years would allow you to recover all of your gains as has been shown via a study of US stock market history.
When you're playing these mind games with yourself it's key to really visualize the scenario and get that negative feeling in your gut you would get on the morning fo the crash. You will likely not have as intense emotions as you would actually staring at your dropped portfolio, but you should definitely feel that nasty feeling in your stomach. If no feeling accompanies this exercise you're doing it wrong and you should continue doing it over time until you really get that unpleasant gut feeling.
Once you have that gut feeling, let it wash over you and don't try to make it go away as humans tend to do with all emotions. Let the feelings stay with you and explore it a bit. See what that feeling is telling you to do. Realize how your emotions are ruling over you instead of anything rational - this is dangerous because investing is very unnatural to human beings and only rationality will help you do well. Tell yourself
It's important to not underestimate the power of such mental exercises. It's easy to dismiss this and argues that imagining things during a bull market won't help you when things really go bad and you actually are sitting in front of your broker's website looking at a number that is 50% less than it was yesterday. Of course, the two things aren't the same, but the power of visualizing is far greater than meets the eye at first. A lot of mental resilience to making foolish moves can be built up using the exercise above and be doing it once a quarter will over time create a healthy mental discipline against acting like a crazy person when things really go bad int he stock market.
Dow Jones Industrial Average Components Over the Decades: A view of the changing face of enterprise in the United States
The Dow Jones Industrial Average is one of the longest-running stock market indexes in the world. Its components have changed since inception - they've changed 51 times since the inception of the index by Charles Dow.
Looking at the Dow Jones Industrial Average's (or simply the Dow's) components over time allows us to see how American business (and the world in general) has changed over the last century and a half.
We won't go into all 51 component changes here -- you can find them here if you'd like -- but we will focus on the most interest and relevant ones and discuss them in a bit more depth than you can find elsewhere on the internet. Instead of giving a cursory overview, we'll dig a bit deeper to see what underlying changes were the root causes of the changes and in the process, we'll gain the following benefits:
The Dow on July 3, 1884 (precursor)
The initial Dow (which wasn't properly the Dow Jones Industrial Average but was instead a creation of Dow called the Dow Transportation Average) consisted of the following:
As the original "Transportation Average" name should indicate, the original Dow components were heavily focused on transportation. We can clearly see that there are a lot of railroad companies represented in the initial Dow mix. In the 1880s, railroads had been around for a few decades, but they still represented the new and happening industry - similar to how technology is today fast growing and focused on thing in business even though computers have been around for a few decades already. Railroads represented Manifest Destiny and a new industrial era where lots of money was being made in the business of moving things from one place to another.
We see that 9 out of the initial 11 firms represented in the 1884 Dow were railroad companies - that's a very large representation and should clearly indicate the importance of transportation generally (and railroads specifically) in the pre-20th Century US economy. As the country moved westward and as more and more goods were in need of rapid transportation in the post-Industrial Revolution era, railroads were able to extract very healthy nominal and real profits.
Basically, a discussion of the early years of the Dow inherently is a discussion of railroads. The first public railways opened up in the US in 1830 using steam engine - by the 1880s, technology had improved as did ridership and a need for transporting goods in a new type of economy where self-reliance was beginning to give way to mass consumption and production.
The equivalent today in terms of industry would be seeing all tech firms dominating the Dow Jones Industrial Average - imagine seeing the Dow today composed of the likes of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, Twitter, Apple, HP, Dell, Cisco, etc. An observer would think that the US economy was heavily dominated by tech. Luckily for us, today's economy is far more diverse than the industrial and transportation economy of the late 19th century - we have large industrial firms, firms involved in chemicals, firms involved in telecommunications, firms producing basic products, firms that primarily provide services (eg. consulting firms), etc. Today's economy is as diverse as any has been in human history.
May 26, 1896 (the first proper Dow Jones Industrial Average)
The first proper (non-transportation only) Dow Jones Industrial included the following firms:
This was the first real Dow Jones Industrial Average. Here we see many of the railroad companies replaced - only two of the firms (the Northern American Company and the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company) are firms heavily involved in transportation.
We can see that the list has now moved away from transportation and is focused important necessities for late 19th Century America. Things like cotton, oil, tobacco, cattle feed, coal, iron, leather and rubber are all represented - these basic necessities were key to a life that was moving away from self-reliance on farms and into a mass-produce economy that required energy (in the form of gas, oil, and coal), straps, linens and other fabrics, heavy metal, electricity, etc.
If the Dow had existed 500 years prior in the Middle Ages, things like electricity, leather, cotton, coal, and rubber would not be there - most of life would consist of cattle feed and other types of feed.
Another interesting thing to note is that the names of these firms are quite basic - they are literally are names of what the company produces. Can there be any doubt that the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company is involved in the production of coal, iron, and railroads? Would you be surprised to find out that the United States Rubber Company produces rubber? These firms were the first of their kind - they are representations of commerce and big business in an era that had only recently exited the darkness of the Middle Ages via the Renaissance. The unique names we see that not only don't represent the firm's products or services but sometimes are not even traditional words that humans have used are only possible in a world that understands what firms are - world filled with people used to branding, buying things from companies instead of from friends or family, and have a lot of trust in business and capitalism in general. The ability of firms to market and brand themselves in order to educate the public about their products and services allows firms today to eschew the basic naming conventions of the past and to use innovative and obscure names such as Twitter or Exxon. A Twitter or an Exxon would be strange in the early years of the Dow - no one would have any idea what these firms produced. Without the ability to create an image of the firm through the use of advertising (which requires a lot - print ads, TV, radio, the internet, etc.), firms would who used strange names would find themselves at a deep disadvantage in the past. It was a far smarter idea to make sure people knew what your business did just by reading the name.
October 1, 1928 (Dow expanded to 30 firms)
As the index expanded to contain 30 firms (the size it's been ever since), the Dow was comprised of the following firms:
Here, the index was expanded to the 30 firms we have today. This was an interesting time in the history of the United States and especially its economic history. The Roaring Twenties were coming to a close and little did anyone knows that the Great Depression was right around the corner.
Here we can see the that we have a few automotive firms represented - we've got General Motors, American Car, Mack Trucks, and Nash Motors. Car companies have come on the market and are now some of the largest firms in the country. A car firm at this time would be similar to seeing the edition of technology and internet firms in the 2010s and 2020s - the firms came up over a few decades and finally took their place among the largest in the US by playing in a new and important industry.
We see that the names here are still those basic names that hearken back to an era before sophisticated marketing and advertising and before readily available means of communicated such as radio, TV, and mass color print.
July 3, 1956
This is the first Dow changes after the US entered WWII - the previous Dow adjustment occurred on March 4, 1939. Since we last saw the Dow above (1928), the US had plunged into a decade-long economic downturn called the Great Depression, entered WWII (which helped it recover), and saw droves of new babies being born in post-war America (the Baby Boom). Let's see how the Dow has been affected:
Here in 1956, we can say that we are in a totally different America. The last time we checked in was in 1928 - almost 30 years later the Depression-era youths fought a war abroad and came back home to have a ton of babies. Although key staples remain in the Dow, we can see the addition of many new firms.
We can see a big variety of firms represented here - car companies, companies producing basic materials, food-related companies, retailers, energy firms, and even a photography company in the form of Kodak. In 1950s America, technology has advanced far enough to make consumer products (photography, cars, retailing, toiletries, etc.) major parts of the economy. A Procter & Gamble wouldn't exist just 50 years prior - people didn't have the disposable incomes to shower often and use toiletries nor did they have a desire to in their mostly self-reliant forms of living. In 1950s America, a firm producing household necessities would make a lot of sense. In the same light, in 1950s America, big retailers, big tobacco, and big car companies all make sense - our conception of that era is of one that has now moved way past the agrarian roots of the United States and now is in the realm of post-WWII technology and sophistication. If you had told the people living through the Great Depression that a photography firm (Kodak) would be one of the biggest in the country, they would have scoffed and not understood why - photography was a luxury and the technology was not all there yet. The same can be said about many things represented above.
August 9, 1976
Jumping forward another twenty years, let's see where this journey has brought us:
In these 20 years, surprisingly little has changed. Only a 5 firms were replaced since the last time we checked in in 1956. By comparison, there over 30 changes from 1928 to 1956 (some back and forth). What you have in this period is a stable period of growth, some merging of firms, and a movement away from those classic self-descriptive names to the more unusual firm names we know of today.
Look above to see the firms that remained in the Dow but changed their names - International Nickel became Inco, Texas Incorporated became Texaco, Swift became Esemar, and Standard Oil of NJ became Exxon. These movements are away from names that clearly state what the firm produces to more esoteric and strange names that don't provide any indication whatsoever about the firm - clearly a reliance on marketing, adverting, and branding is required in order to educate the public and create a mental picture of the firm when such strange names are used. This is possible because we are no in a world of color television, radio, print magazines, and other forms of advertising.
This trend has continued today where almost all new and interesting firms have absolutely strange names that give zero indication of what the firm actually does - names such as Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Apple, etc. If you took a person from 1850 and asked him to whet he or she tough a firm named Standard Oil or a firm named American Can do, he or she would very likely guess correctly. If you asked the same person to describe what he or she thought a firm like Exxon does (bear in mind this is Standard Oil with a name change), they would have no clue and rightly so because Exxon is a totally made up term. As stated above, such strange names can only work in a modern world filled with modern telecommunication systems and a general populace that is receptive to advertising and marketing.
March 17, 1997
About two more decades after our last stop, a lot has happened - the Cold War is over and we're at the apex of the 1990s economic boom. Here are the Dow components now:
Here we can see more name changes (eg. Chevron and AT&T), continuing the overall movement away from the simple names to the more strange and esoteric ones that require branding.
We can also see that some of the old components (eg. AT&T, Chevron, Exxon, Union Carbide, General Electric, General Motors, Minnesota Mining, Sears, and Union Carbide) still here - times have changed but these good firms have endured for a variety of reasons. Some endured because of good management (eg. General Electric), some because of early entry and the existence of various barriers to entry (eg. General Motors), and many because of luck.
It's interesting that even though we're in the heart of the proliferation of personal computing and the internet, there are few technology firms. This makes quite a bit of sense - it takes time for these new firms to grow to a size large enough that would put them in the Dow (the top 30 firms in the US). Firms like Apple, Cisco, Microsoft, and others might have been making big moves during this era, but they were still growing. IBM and HP are present because they were around longer - IBM was around for almost a century at this time.
November 1, 1999
About two more decades after our last stop, a lot has happened - the Cold War is over and we're at the apex of the 1990s economic boom. Here are the Dow components now:
With the addition of Intel, Microsoft, and SBC, we can see that in just about 2 years, the Dow has taken on some of the tech firms. These firms have grown in market cap by now (due in part to what would later be called the Tech Bubble) and had market caps large enough to allow placement within the Dow. The Dow here contains many old stalwarts but is filled with new firms that were either started within the last few decades or came to major prominence recently.
March 19, 2015
The last Dow Jones Industrial Average change happened in early 2015 - here is the current makeup of the Dow:
In today's Dow, we see the familiar firms that make up the market share and the mind share of the US economy today. We see an almost complete transition away from the simple self-descriptive business names to esoteric and strange names that require branding - compare this final list with the first list. Firms like National Lead, Tennessee Coal, United States Leather, and others are so clear in their descriptions while firms like Visa, Pfizer, Nike, and Apple would be totally obscure if not for branding and advertising.
Another interesting thing is the rise of big pharmaceutical and healthcare firms - firms such as Merck, Pfizer, and UnitedHealth have come to major prominence due to various large-scale factors. These factors include an aging population (Baby Boomers), a more wealthy economy that can spend more on healthcare, and the success of pharmaceutical research in producing new, innovative, and expensive drugs.
We also see the tech firms playing a bigger role - Cisco, Apple, Microsoft, and Verizon are all part of the overall technology economy, helping to provide hardware, software, and telecommunication services.
The fallacy of composition is a fundamental fallacy of reasoning or thinking and it arises when we infer that just because something is true of some part of a whole (or every part of a whole), it is also true of the whole.
Put another way, the fallacy of composition arises when we infer that something is true of the whole just because it is true of some part (or every part) of the whole.
If the above semi-formal definition(s) are confusing, let us try to put it into even simpler terms. The fallacy of composition tells us that just because something is true of some part of something (or even every part of something), we cannot then automatically infer that the same thing is true of the entire thing.
The fallacy of composition is a common fallacy in various spheres including relatively primitive scientific endeavors, political and voting theory, and economics. In fact, there are many interesting examples of the fallacy of composition in economics.
Here are a few examples of the fallacy of composition economics:
The fallacy of composition is more than just something that is interesting to think about - the fallacy of composition is a real error in thinking that has caused mistakes and misunderstandings throughout history. By understanding the nature of the fallacy and giving it a name, we might be able to be on guard against future fallacious and illogical thinking and be able to lead smarter lives both as individuals and as a society. For example, if we don't understand as a society that extreme saving might not do for society as a whole what it does for an individual super-saver's pocketbook, we might be able to create better policies and incentives - the kind of policies and incentives that benefit the whole society.
Scarcity is a fundmental principle in economics that lies at the bedrock of the elegant social science. Scarcity in economics refers to the limitations inherent in our world and universe. We live in a scarce world. There are finite amounts of all of the resources humans find useful. There's a finite amount of timber, coal, oil, land, cattle, chickens, iron ore, land, etc. Additionally, humans have a finite amount of time in the day, in the year, and in their lives.
Because of scarcity, choices must always be made regarding what to produce, what to spend our time on, what to spend our energy on, and what to spend our money on. There are alternative uses to land, resources, capital, and time. All of the possible uses cannot come to fruition because there is not enough land, resources, capital, and time for them. It is the role of economics and economists to assist with finding the best uses for the scarce resources, the best uses generally meaning those uses which create the most utility.
Economics, at its core, is about answering three elegant but important questions. They lie at the foundation of the subject and must be answered by every nation on Earth. Read the lengthy article to find out what the three questions are and to get a good perspective on what the core of economics is about.
Do you really know what economics is about?
Unless you've taken an economics course (and maybe even if you have), you probably have the wrong idea of what economics is. Economics is obviously a very complicated and broad field of study, but what is at the most primal core of economics? Throughout my conversations with people unfamiliar with the subject, I have realized that people generally have a misconception of what economics really is at its most fundamental core. Some people seem to think of it as something close to accounting. Other people seem to think of it as close to business or entrepreneurship. Others still think of economics as having something to do with the political realm. Although they are all moving in the right direction with these definitions, they are pretty much all wrong.
Economics might touch on accounting, business, entrepreneurship, politics, and many other human endeavors, but it does so only incidentally. It touches accounting because accounting is the language of finance and economic sometimes deals with things related to finance. It touches business and entrepreneurship because firms and individuals act in rational ways that economists attempt to describe. It touches political science because economists attempt to answer important questions about how societies organize themselves to produce things. It touches other things also, but only incidentally. Economics, narrowly defined, is actually something quite different than what most people believe it to be - something very different than accounting, business, or politics. Economics, at its most basic core, is the pursuit of something much simpler - it is an attempt to answer just three basic questions
Question 1: What to produce?
Question 2: For whom to produce it?
Question 3: How to produce it?
These three questions are more macro-oriented (economics can be divided into macroeconomics and microeconomics). All societies and all nations must answer these three questions.
Why do they have to be answered?
Why do all nations have to answer these questions? Because we live in a world of scarcity and we want to efficiently allocate the scarce resources that exist. In a world of unlimited resources without any scarcity of any kind, these three questions wouldn't make sense because no choice would need to be made - everything could be produced for everyone. In a world of scarcity, however, a choice must be made, either implicitly or explicitly. By its very nature, the scarcity in our world imposes constraints upon our actions and forces an answer to those three questions. But that might be a bit too philosophical for our purposes here, so we'll continue.
Are you surprised?
Looking at those questions, you might be puzzled. If this isn't what you thought economics was about that's ok. Economics is obviously a very broad field of study and goes way beyond those three questions, but pretty much everything that economics is and does emanates from an attempt to answer those three questions. That is why I love economics so much and that is why I am so intrigued by it.
Now, Let's Dig Deeper Into the Questions
1. What is to be produced
Every society must answer this question and has answered this question since antiquity. To sustain life, water and food are required. Some for of shelter is also a primary necessity for life and safety. Society has managed to move beyond the basic necessities of life and much of the world (specifically the Western world) lives in a state of such affluence that past generations would not even be able to comprehend our lifestyles.
A society, whether that society is a small tribe in our distant past or a modern nation, must decide what is to be produced. Economics looks at this question at both a macro and a micro level, but we'll focus on the macro level here for the purposes of explanation.
Asking, "What to produce?" might sound a bit confusing, but it shouldn't be. The question is simple and straightforward. Economics literally is concerned with the final mix of goods and services produced by a society during a certain time interval (usually a year). The question's answer is also easy to see or observe. You just have to look at the final mix of goods and services produced by a society. For example, we can observe the final mix of goods and services produced in the United States in a given year. Obviously there are a lot of things produced and it would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to count or list them all, but that isn't a problem and that isn't a concern. The point isn't to count or list the goods or services produced. We can understand in our mind that every year a certain mix of goods and services is produced in the United States and we can understand that this mix of goods and services is society's answer to the question of "What to produce?"
Here are a few examples that might help illustrate the meaning of the question:
2. For whom to produce it?
The next logical question after it is determined (somehow) what is to be produced, is "for who?" This makes a lot of sense. After all, everything produced is for the benefit of the society. Whenever anyone makes something, it is either to benefit himself or herself directly, or it is to obtain income by selling that product or service to another. The only way to do that is to provide some sort of value to the other. Obviously, this is a bit idealistic, because sometimes useless things cloaked in a lot of marketing are sold to unsuspecting buyers, but we won't go down that path in this piece.
Here are a few examples that might better illustrate the question:
3. How to produce it?
Finally, once we decide what to produce and for whom, we should think about how to produce it. This question might not seem as important as the other two at first glance, but it is actually very important. How we produce something reflects our beliefs and values. It also downstaters our society's technological abilities.
Here are a few examples to better illustrate what this question is getting at:
But wait! - There's a fourth question!
The above 3 questions really are the main questions that economics attempts to answer, but in answering those 3 questions, a fourth question organically arises:
Question 4: Who decides?
This question is a very interesting one to answer. It makes sense to ask it, doesn't it? We're answering three questions. So WHO should answer them? Who should decide what to produce, for whom to produce it, and how to produce it? Question 4 has been answered in man different ways throughout history. Let's examine two of the main ways we can answer this question:
Capitalism - We all Decide (Sort of)
In capitalism, the entire society decides how to answer the three economic questions using a magical mechanism called prices operating in what should be a free or laissez-faire market. Prices cause the invisible hand (an important economic concept first articulated by economist Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations) to direct the flow of resources and energy towards certain things and away from others. In a properly working society or nation, the invisible hand guides the economy toward the optimal mix of goods and services and allocates those goods and services in an optimal way among the members of the society or nation. Now, what does optimal really mean? That's beyond the scope of this piece of writing, but it is safe to say that, generally, capitalism does work in making things pretty good for most people.
The United States, Wester Europe, and many other modern countries are capitalist or quasi-capitalist societies where prices guide the flow of resources and a free-market system prevails. Prices are a pretty magical thing when you think about it. Prices are sort of like a voting machine, expect you to get more votes if you have more money. Though the price function in a free market, resources are somehow magically allocated to their most efficient use without the participants of the economy having to do much more than observe what is happening in front of them and making rational decisions based on those observations. If a certain product or service has a very high price and profit margin, you might be induced to produce some of that product or service yourself. It's as if the economy magically communicates to producers what the society wants (Of course a society can't "want" anything in the proper sense of the word because a society isn't a sentient being, but I hope you understand what I mean). No planning or discussion or analysis is required in such a free-market laissez-faire society, only observing things and acting in a rationally self-interested way. It's pretty cool in my opinion, although drawbacks, inefficiencies, and inequities do exist in a free-market capitalist society.
A command economy is where a central governmental body answers the three basic economic questions. The former Soviet Union is an excellent example of a command economy. In the Soviet Union, private ownership of businesses didn't exist and economic participants could not decide for themselves what goods or services to produce. Everyone was a government worker and a private sector didn't really exist. You couldn't observe extremely high prices for a certain type of product or service, for example, and then decide to open up shop and produce that product or service yourself. Instead of the messy capitalist system where prices give us information about what to do, the government body decides most things in a much more formalized approach in a command economy. The government body decides how much bread to produce, how many cars to produce, and how to produce them all. It also decides who gets them. In reality, a command economy is extremely difficult to implement well because of the nature of knowledge and, specifically, of the knowledge that is required to answer the three economic questions in the most efficient and optimal ways. The knowledge needed to answer the three questions is generally time-specific and localized. Those who have the most knowledge of what needs to happen at a particular moment (the participants of the economy) are not the ones making the decisions in a command econnomy. Instead, a government body that is far-remvoed makes the decisions, but it is almost impossible for that government body to have as much knowledge as the colelctive "mind" of the paritcipatns fo the economy. Look for articles on this later, as this is a very interesting but somewhat esoteric and difficult concept.
A Word of Caution About Capitalism vs. Command Economy
It's importnat to understnad that what we presented above was a very basic description of capitalism and command systems. Additionally, it's importnat to realize that no nation fits a mold perfectly. Most nations that are capitalist, for example, have asepcts of a comand system (eg. some socialism with a generally capitalist framework). Sometimes command economies have capitalist pockets in place (eg. relatively sophisticated black markets where a more capitalist structure prevails).
Other Ways to Answer Question 4?
Those are the two main ways the questions can be answered, but let's examine a few other possibilities for answering Question 4 (Who decides?):
Answer Question 1 (What to produce?) via voting?
It's possible to imagine everyone voting on how to answer the three economic questions, but that would obviously be unfeasible in a complex economy such as that of the United States.
Answer Question 2 (For whom to produce it?) with an essay-writing contest?
Doesn't that sound like a good and fair way to decide who gets what? Everyone writes and essay arguing why they need and deserve something. It might work in a utopia, but that's obviously not feasible in the world we live for many reasons, the main one being that it would take an enormous amount of time to process and read the essays. That's the beautify of prices and a open and free economy - no essay contest is needed! With the price function, there doesn't have to be anything centralized deciding who gets what. Instead, things somehow work themselves out based on the forces of supply and demand. It's a pretty incredible and elegant thing in my opinion, but it's not very easy to deeply understand how profound the price function in a free-market economy really is without studying it and thinking about it for a long time.
Answer all three economic questions yourself?
What does that even mean? How can only YOU decide the answers to those questions? Well, if we lived in a world where each person produced every single thing for themselves, you would decide what to produce in your own little world (Question 1) and how to produce it (Question 3). Question 2 (For whom...) wouldn't need to be answered in this self-sufficient world because everything would be for you. The problem with this is that if you had to produce everything for yourself (total self-sufficiency), you would be in poverty along with everyone else in the world. There would be no specialization, trade, or economies of scale and everyone would live as humans lived many thousands of years ago - in destitute poverty. Humanity used to live in a much more self-sufficient way, but it was never totally self-sufficient in my opinion. Some trade and some cooperation did occur even in the distant past.
This was a long piece on what started out as three simple questions. The thing is, they are not that simple. They might sound simple, but they are incredibly deep and it takes years of study and thinking to truly understand how profound the questions are and how beautifully economics attempts to answer them. That's one of the many reasons I love economics.
Further Reading: The Greatest Infographic Ever Created
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