Dow Jones nearing an all-time high. So what?

The Dow is a silly index for silly people. Pay no heed.

Today could be the day the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits its highest ever mark. And it won't mean a thing.

The DJIA—commonly referred to as just the "Dow"—is one of the most important stock market indexes in America. With the S&P 500 and Nasdaq, it's a useful proxy for the health of American business. When the Dow's up, times are good; when it's down, hold on to your hats.

Later today, it's expected that the Dow will break 14,164.53, the all-time high reached on Oct 9, 2007. It closed at 14,127.82 yesterday, and a slew of "good" reports from Europe—where French, German and UK PMIs came in higher than expected, albeit still signalling contraction for the former—as well as futures contracts due to vest today indicate that nows the time it will break that barrier.

But even if it does, it's a meaningless milestone. Due to the way the Dow is put together, the two marks aren't comparable. So while you will read stories about how "the American market has recovered", they may or may not be true—and this says nothing either way.

Adam Nash describes the problem:

Just thirty stocks, hand picked by committee by Dow Jones, with no rigorous requirements. Worse, it’s a “price-weighted” index, which is mathematically nonsensical. When calculating the Dow Jones Industrial Average, they take the actual stock prices of each stock, add them together, and divide them by a “Dow Divisor“. They don’t take into account how many shares outstanding; they don’t assess the market capitalization of each company. When a stock splits, they actually change the divisor for the whole index. It’s completely unclear what this index is designed to measure, other than financial illiteracy.

In fact, there is only one justification for the Dow Jones Industrial Average being calculated this way. Dow Jones explains it in this post on why Apple & Google are not included in the index. To save you some time, I’ll summarize: they have always done it this way, and if they change it, then they won’t be able to compare today’s nonsensical index to the nonsensical index from the last 100+ years.

The end result is that, as Nash points out, the Dow is only "off its highs" of 2007 because of it made one arbitrary decision rather than another. If Apple had been introduced to the index in 2009 rather than Cisco, the Dow would have broken its high well over a year ago. It would have been nonsensical to report that then; and it's still nonsensical to care now.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation