What Is The Dow?

What Is The Dow Jones Industrial Average?

The New York Stock Exchange

We’ve hear a lot about the Dow in the news. It goes up and folks are happy.  It goes down and folks panic.  But what is this mystical Dow that everyone is talking about?

The Dow actually stand for Dow Jones Industrial Average.  It’s made up of the 30 largest and most widely held public companies.  The average is a scaled average which is price weighted to account for stock splits.  Although it only accounts for 30 companies, the Dow has historically been in line with the larger US market.  For this reason it tends to be the most common indicator of the market in general.

The Dow was first published in 1896 and consisted of 12 companies:

  • American Cotton Oil Company
  • American Sugar Company
  • American Tobacco Company
  • Chicago Gas Company
  • Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company
  • General Electric
  • Laclede Gas Light Company
  • National Lead Company
  • North American Company
  • Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Rail company
  • US Leather Company
  • Unites States Rubber Company

Today’s Dow looks very different:

3M
Alcoa
American Express
AT&T
Bank of America
Boeing
Caterpillar
Chevron Corporation
Citigroup
Coca-Cola
DuPont
ExxonMobil
General Electric
General Motors
Hewlett-Packard
Home Depot
Intel
IBM
Johnson & Johnson
JPMorgan Chase
Kraft Foods
McDonald’s
Merck
Microsoft
Pfizer
Procter & Gamble
United Technologies Corporation
Verizon Communications
Walmart
Walt Disney

Update – On June 8, 2009 GM and Citigroup were replaced by The Travelers Companies and Cisco Systems.

When it started the Dow averaged 40.94.  It’s recent high was 14,164.53 on October 9, 2007.

Why is it so important?

Since the Dow represents 30 of the largest US companies, changes in the stock prices of the Dow can be seen to represent the general health of US companies.  Higher averages mean growth and profits while lower averages represent contraction and losses.

Do you follow Dow prices?  Do you think it’s an accurate economic indicator?


Creative Commons License photo credit: epicharmus

The American Dream Is An Illusion

part of our living room

What is the American Dream to you?

I used to think of it as owning a home, having a good job, and raising a family.  I don’t think I’m far off by thinking that’s what many of us think it is.  Perhaps the conventional thought is the house has a white picket fence with a 2-car garage as well?

But is that what we are actually aiming at these days?

My big issue here is owning a home.  We’re all hearing about financial institutions doing bad because of mortgages.  So what is happening to the people who buy homes?  Foreclosures!

Why foreclosures?  Could be that people bought too much house than they could afford with too little down?

The way I see it, when you’re buying a house with say zero down or even 5% down when will you actually own your home?  This has become a major problem for people.

In my opinion it’s no longer the American dream to own a home.  That’s an illusion.

Today’s American dream is to appear like you own a home.  It’s become more important to look like you have a great big home.  Who really owns these homes?  The banks!

If there’s anything to learn from all of the recent financial bruhaha it’s that most people have to re-think what owning a home really means!

  • An interest only loan or an adjustable APR will not help you own a home.  You’ll get to move into one but you won’t own it.
  • A modest home is OK.  You don’t need a McMansion!
  • Put down as much as you can when you buy a home (remember when you really needed 20%, aim for that).  This way you start off owning a good piece of it.
  • Homes are to live in!  Perhaps flipping a house is profitable for some.  But for most people a home should be where you live not where you speculate.
  • Just because you make enough to cover the cost of the mortgage it doesn’t mean you can actually afford the home!  So many other things have to be considered from taxes to losing a job to how much savings you have to home repairs, and so much more.

I’m ranting a bit so I apologize.

It just seems that there’s so much talk about how banks and such are so greedy that we might be forgetting that it’s people who are living in these homes.  They had a bit to do with all of this as well.  Some people probably got genuinely swindled and some came on hard times.  I understand this.  But many people were just greedy and wanted as big a home as they could get without considering if they could afford it.

I’m going to go a bit further.

The American Dream has turned into consuming as much as you can.  At least that’s what corporate America wants.

One of the biggest measures of the economy is GDP, Gross National Product.  This is driven by us buying more stuff.  When we buy less stuff then the economy stagnantes.  But is it really a fair point to judge the economy by how much stuff we buy?  What’s the end goal?

We can only buy so much stuff without going into debt and I dare say we’re in enough debt already.  How much more debt can we handle without bursting?

We need a new measure.  Maybe we need to look at quality of life instead of a dollar figure put on our economy.  Think of it.  How many times can we upgrade our personal technology?  We can only get so many computers and flat-screen TVs.  How quickly can we really upgrade or cell phones?  But when we don’t do these things, even if we’re already saturated, then Chicken Little runs around saying the economy isn’t doing well.

But how happy are we?  What is our life like?  If we have to work 2 jobs or put in overtime in order to afford all this stuff and their upgrades then is that a good life?  Is that a dream to aspire to?

What do you think?  What is the American dream these days?  Is it attainable?  Is the American Dream an illusion?

Creative Commons License photo credit: hans s

The Financial Roller Coaster Continues For Lynch, Lehman, And AIG

Threatening

Crazy news this Monday morning! So here’s the scorecard:

Merrill Lynch will be bought by Bank of America. According to Bloomberg.com, BofA will buy Merrill for $29 a share a 70% premium on it’s 9/12 price but considerably lower than it’s 2007 high of $97.53.  What caused this buyout to happen?  Bad mortgages! According to the NY Times Merrill Lynch has lost over $45 Billion in mortgage investments.  The iconic bull from their logo will now be running through the halls of Bank of America!  Is Bank of America slowly becoming the Google of banking?

Not so good news for Lehman Brothers which is filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  The firm was unable to find a buyer and as a result needs to protect itself until a sale can happen.  Lehman almost worked out a deal with Bank of America but BofA bailed someone else out instead.  Lehman Brothers’ problems stem from $60 Billion in “soured real estate holdings” according to the Associated Press.

And since two isn’t enough, AIG is seeking a $40 Billion loan from the Fed in hopes to prevent a downgrade of it’s credit rating.  AIG recently reported a quarterly loss of $5 Billion as a result of mortgage-related investments (see a pattern here?).  According to MarketWatch if AIG’s credit rating goes down it will be difficult for them to sell new products which would prevent them from raising new capital.

What does all of this mean? 

Well it’s going to be an interesting day in the stock market.  And by interesting I’m thinking not so good.  The International Herald Tribune is already reporting drops in the World markets.

As more financial firms reach critical mass it will become more difficult for other firms to get loans.  This could potentially be the straw that breaks the camel’s back on the whole recession question.  When firms can’t get more capital they can’t invest more in their businesses which slows their production.  If productions slows enough to become negative then we’re in a recession.

For us, the little people, I think it’s going to become more difficult to get a mortgage, at least in the short run.  Banks are going to be more skittish about giving away cheap loans.  I’m sure this isn’t the end of the situation either.  Hopefully though, the end result will be new policies at banks to prevent a housing crisis like this from happening again.  Banks aren’t the only ones to blame though.  The Fed has a hand in this as well as low Fed rates have made cheap money available for some time now.  And of course some blame has to go out to realtors and housing consumers for bad mortgages as well.  (Check out the take on the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae bailout at My Two Dollars).

Buckle yourself in, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sister72

Will The Economic Stimulus Payments Have To Be Paid Back

Will you have to pay the Economic Stimulus back?

Now that many have already received their economic stimulus payments, and have figured out what to do with it, I’m seeing a lot of questions asking “Will the stimulus payment need to be paid back?”

The quick answer is no. According to the IRS the economic stimulus payment is not taxable and will not reduce what you may be owed in a tax refund for 2008 (filed in 2009). In fact it’s possible that you get more back next year, if you didn’t already get the maximum, based on next year’s return. See the amount was based on your 2007 return so if you didn’t qualify for the full amount you may still qualify for the difference based on your 2008 return. Don’t worry if you received the full amount already. No matter what your 2008 return says you won’t have to pay anything back.

Now the the longer answer – You are going to have to pay back the economic stimulus payment! In some way, shape, or form we will pay that back. The money has to come from somewhere.

Let’s look at the ways in which the gov’t receives income:

  • Taxes (from income and corporate taxes).
  • Loans (in the forms of government backed securities such as bonds, bills, and notes).
  • Printing more money in the treasury.

Which do you think the money will come from? Printing money sounds like an easy way to find the dough but it’s not a policy the US uses due to the fact that more money creates inflation (Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon – thank you Milton Friedman). And who wants even higher prices?!? We can issue more loans. Did you know that in 2006 we paid $406 Billion in interest payments on loans made to cover the national debt? Where does that money come from? See above. So that leaves us with taxes.

Yes, I believe we will be paying back the economic stimulus payments in the form of taxes. It may not be as one lump sum like we received it but it will be paid out. It’s just lumped together with the rest of the national debt.

Could this be avoided? Maybe. But only if the national debt, which is over $9 Trillion, is reduced to zero in our lifetimes. This would mean that government would have to cut back it’s size and spending. Most likely many programs that help people would fall victim to the cuts. I’m not saying it’s impossible for this to happen, just improbable. I hope I’m wrong.

Of course another way to look at it is it won’t be us but our kid’s generation that will pay it back. I’m not too sure that’s a positive spin on it though.

So there you have it! Do we have to pay the economic stimulus payments back?

No, but yes.

What do you think?

Update: There has been a lot of confusion over paying the Economic Stimulus Payment back.  Please read Paying Back the Economic Stimulus – Lots of Tax Confusion for more information and clarification!

photo by Refracted Moments

15 Things To Do With Your Economic Stimulus Check

The government Stimulus checks started going out on April 28th. If you are expecting one you should start looking for it in May (here’s a post listing the dates).

So what are you going to do with the extra money? Here are a list of ideas for using your stimulus check:

  • Pay off credit cards – If you have any credit card debt the stimulus check will be a great way knock some of that out! Paying off the debt gives you an instant return in savings of whatever you would have paid in interest fees. Psychologically, you will help in getting the debt monkey off your back.
  • Contribute to a Roth IRA – You can take your money and put it into your Roth IRA. For 2008 the contribution limit is $5000.
  • Start an emergency fund – If you don’t already have some sort of emergency fund (three to six months expenses seems to be the conventional wisdom) then your stimulus check is a good way to start one. Even if you have one you can use the money to increase your fund. A great place to start one is with ING Direct (you can even get a $25 bonus by opening your account with $250).
  • Contribute to a 529 college savings plan – You can use the money to help save for your kid’s education by putting the money in a 529 plan. Not only do you help save for college but you might get a tax break as well depending on your home state’s plan.
  • Pre-pay your mortgage – Take the money and make additional payments to your mortgage. By making additional payments you will own your home faster and pay less in interest. Just make sure the payments go towards the loan principle and not next month’s payment (also check that your lender will accept pre-payments without fees or penalties).
  • Go on vacation – You may have been planning to do this anyway so here is a good way to fund the vacation. Go and do something that will be a great experience for the family that you will all remember.
  • Improve the house – If there’s something you’ve needed to improve on your home, such as a furnace, you can use your stimulus check to pay for it (or at least help). Other options could be new paint job, carpet, furniture, appliances, etc…
  • Car maintenance – Have you been putting off a car repair? Need new brakes? New tires? Your stimulus money can fund it. If your car is about to go kaput your stimulus check could help pay for a new car (or a good new used car).
  • Learn to invest – Do some research and take the money and start investing. Companies such as Sharebuilder and Zecco offer low-fee investing. You have to do your homework with this option but it might be just enough money to start investing but not so much that you will be crazy worrying if you lose it. If you invest through Sharebuilder you can buy partial shares of Berkshire Hathaway B class shares. I hear that Warren Buffett is pretty good at investing.
  • Pay off student loans – If you have high interest student loans then your stimulus check can be a great way to help pay your student loans off. Just like with credit cards paying off your high interest student loans give you the instant return in savings of what you would have paid in interest.
  • Have a nice evening out – Take your spouse out to a really great meal. Get babysitting and go to that great restaurant you wanted to try. Go see that new show that everyone’s talking about. Make an experience you will always remember.
  • Get physically fit – The stimulus check should be enough to pay for a year’s gym membership (or more than a year). Use the stimulus check as a catalyst to get in shape and make your life healthier. Not sure about a gym? Find a class such as yoga or martial arts to join. Not into that? Buy a new bike and go riding. Or get yourself some good running sneakers and running attire. Join your local running club and enter a few small races. You never know, you may one day run a marathon.
  • Go to school – Use your stimulus check to enroll in a college course or two. This can be toward a degree or just continuing education. Hey, you can take a personal finance course. Maybe learn a second language?
  • Do nothing – This is the easiest of them all. Put the money in your savings account and forget about it. You don’t have to spend it or find any particular purpose for it. It doesn’t have to burn a hole in your pocket. One day you might find a good use for it but for now it adds to your savings.

Personally, we’re closer to the Do Nothing suggestion. Our stimulus check will come via direct deposit right into our ING account. We have no specific plans for the money so it will be added into our savings. Our check may pay parts of many of the suggestions or for none of them. Either way it will earn interest until it finds a home somewhere else.

Do you have any other ideas for using the economic stimulus check?

photo by Argenberg
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