It took 5½ often excruciating years, but the Dow Jones industrial average officially put the Great Recession behind it by hitting an all-time high Tuesday.
But the Wall Street record, with the Dow closing at 14,253.77, up by 125.95 points, and shattering the old record of 14,164.53, didn’t prompt celebrations or widespread predictions of even greater days ahead.
Instead, amid the backdrop of a subdued – but slowly strengthening – economy still beset by high unemployment and cautious consumers, local investment advisers hailed the record as a sign of the stock market’s resiliency and a testament to the radical reshaping of the U.S. economy that has occurred since the previous high in October 2007.
“People aren’t feeling great about this market,” said Lawrence V. Whistler, chief investment officer at Nottingham Advisors, an Amherst money management firm.
“But the bottom line is that progress is being made. I think we’re in the sixth or seventh inning of the recovery.”
The gains represent a remarkable comeback for the stock market. The Dow has more than doubled since falling to a low of 6,547 in March 2009 because of the financial crisis and the Great Recession.
But investors typically are focused on what they think will happen in the coming months, not what’s going on now or has gone on in the past. And the general expectation is that the economy will continue to grow and that profits will keep strengthening. Both factors support higher stock prices.
“There have been extensive periods where there’s been a disconnect between economic growth and the market,” said Anthony J. Ogorek, who runs Ogorek Wealth Management in Amherst.
There are some strong economic undercurrents that have been pushing stock prices higher. Businesses, which hoarded cash during the recession, have started investing in new machinery and equipment again. The painful job cuts during the downturn, whose legacy is today’s 7.9 percent unemployment rate, have left companies leaner – and significantly more profitable – than they were when the market set its previous high Oct. 9, 2007.
Operating earnings on the broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index are 9 percent more than they were before the recession and 70 percent higher than at the depths of the downturn in 2009. That index closed Tuesday at 1,539.79, close to its all-time high of 1,565.
The S&P 500, an index of 500 large American corporations, is much broader than the 30-company Dow and is considered a stronger barometer of the economy.
The Nasdaq composite index, with almost 3,000 technology and growth companies, closed up by 42 points, at 3,224, well below its record of 5,046 set in March 2000.
“It’s a challenging environment, but the only silver lining is that earnings have been so strong,” said Hamburg financial planner Peter Aleksandrowicz.
Low interest rates – the product of the Federal Reserve pumping $3 trillion in liquidity into the economy – have hammered savers by slashing the returns on low-risk investments to virtually nothing, pushing them into higher-yielding bonds and, to a lesser extent, stocks in hopes of capturing higher returns.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, currently 1.9 percent, is still lower than the yield of about 2.1 percent on the S&P 500.
“Savers have gotten killed,” Ogorek said. “Everything that’s paying a decent rate has taken in a lot of money,” and that includes stocks, especially those that pay dividends.
“Is this 14,000 like the last 14,000?” Aleksandrowicz asked. “This is a totally different one. It is a much cheaper 14,000, so I think we have a lot of room to run. I don’t know where else you turn other than the U.S. equity market.”
Consumers have taken advantage of low rates to refinance mortgages and other debt, reducing interest expenses as they work to pay down the borrowings they accumulated during the debt-fueled expansion of a decade ago.
Debt payments, which ate up a little more than 14 percent of the average household’s disposable income before the crash, now take up less than 11 percent, leaving consumers with more money to spend on other things, according to the Fed.
But the economy continues to face strong head winds. Economic growth slowed to just 0.1 percent during the fourth quarter, while consumer confidence remains subdued, and wage growth has barely kept pace with inflation. Housing prices across the country, despite recent improvement, still are about 25 percent below their 2007 peak, wiping out a major source of household wealth that had fueled the economy during the early 2000s.
Unemployment – 4.7 percent in October 2007 – now is 7.9 percent, although that’s still an improvement from its peak of 10 percent in October 2009.
And economists warn that automatic spending cuts from the federal budget crisis could put a further drag on economic growth.
Those long-term financial issues – and the more recent political ones – are troubling to a significant cadre of investors who were badly spooked by the market’s plunge – the Dow plummeted 46 percent in just 15 months – and still are wary of getting back into the stock market.
“There is still disbelief that the market has, in fact, recovered,” Ogorek said. “What we experienced five years ago is statistically quite rare, a perhaps once-or-twice-in-a-century event.”
And those feelings are what make investing so difficult, Ogorek said.
“Successful investing is very counterintuitive. You should be fearful when you’re the most comfortable, and you should be investing when you’re the most fearful,” he said.
“Just think about how you felt 5½ years ago,” Ogorek said, “and how you truly believed the market was going to zero; 5½ years later, we see that markets self-correct. They don’t go to zero, and they do come back.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. email: email@example.com