As the Dow burst through the 13,000 milestone this week, few understood the hollowness of the achievement. Measured against the rising dollar-denominated prices of just about everything else on the planet, the Dow has actually lost value over the past seven years. Measured against the truest benchmark, the price of gold, the record high for the Dow was set back in January of 2000 when its price equaled approximately 43 ounces of gold. Today it is only worth about 19 ounces.
To better appreciate just how much of stock gains can be attributed to inflation, consider that the record high for the Dow in 1929 of approximately 380 also equated to 19 ounces of gold. So despite all of the hoopla and a thirty-fold increase in stock prices, the Dow has actually gained no real value during the past eighty years. The entire rise from 360 to 13,000 has been an illusion made possible by the magic of inflation. So much for the concept of stocks being a “can’t lose??? long term investment — unless you feel that eighty years is not quite a long enough time horizon!
Now that is not to imply that the Dow has not generated returns during those years: it has. However, those returns have been a function of dividends and not appreciation. But its not yields that Wall Street celebrates, its prices. By dazzling investors with higher prices, they distract their attention from the unpleasant reality that they are actually treading water. What difference does it make if you have more dollars if the dollars themselves have less purchasing power?
Despite its recent eclipse of 13,000 the Dow now buys 30% fewer euros than it did back in 2000 when it was priced at approximately 11,500. It also buys 35% fewer gallons of milk, 40% fewer bushels of corn or wheat, 65% fewer ounces of silver, 70% fewer barrels of oil, 80% fewer pounds of copper, and 90% fewer pounds of uranium. Try figuring what the Dow will buy in terms of other necessities, such as housing, insurance, college tuition or hospitalization. Any way you measure it, the Dow is worth far less today then it was in January of 2000.
Back in 1980 one Zimbabwe dollar was worth more than one U.S. dollar. Therefore a billionaire in Zimbabwe was also a billionaire in America. Today, almost everyone in Zimbabwe is a billionaire yet few of them can afford a pack of chewing gum. Do you think that anyone invested in the Zimbabwean stock market these past 30 years cares how many record highs that market has made?
Many might feel that a comparison of the U.S. to Zimbabwe is ridiculous. However, fundamentally there is no real difference between a Zimbabwean dollar and an American dollar. They are both simply pieces of paper, the value of which depends on the resolve of politicians not to print too many of them. During the difficult economic times that lie ahead, the pressure on the Fed to run its printing presses full throttle will be immense.
Think back to the German experience with hyper-inflation during the Weimar Republic. At the time of its currency meltdown, Germany was a major economic power (even after the devastation of the First World War). Yet that status did not prevent its currency from becoming worthless. The impetus for Germany’s hyper-inflation was the fact that its industrial base had been badly damaged during the war, yet under the terms of Treaty of Versailles it was obligated to pay enormous reparations to the Allies. Lacking the ability to export enough goods to repay its debts, it resorted to a printing press instead. America is now in a similar predicament. Although our industry was not destroyed by bombs, it’s gone just the same. While we might not be bound by a treaty to pay reparations, the trillions of dollars of American IOU’s now owned by foreigners will be just as burdensome an obligation. It is hard to image we can “repay??? these debts without civil unrest, massive inflation, or both.
The point to remember is that when it comes to records, it is real purchasing power, not nominal value, that counts. Measured by its purchasing power, the Dow has clearly lost value over the past seven years. Those who have remained invested in Dow stocks during that time period are clearly poorer as a result. Those who continue doing so will likely lose even more wealth in the years ahead, regardless of how many more nominal record highs the Dow sets.