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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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.