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Dow at 22,000: All eyes on an index few investors actually put money in

  • The Dow hit a record level and closed above 22,000 for the first time on Wednesday.
  • For the year, the Dow is now ahead of the S&P 500 with a return of more than 11 percent, but as an investment, the Dow has not risen in popularity during the era of index funds and ETFs.
  • Over the past decade, S&P 500 index funds and ETFs have taken in $302 billion. Dow index funds and ETFs have taken in $3 billion.
  • In the past five years, S&P 500 funds have amassed $236 billion. Dow-linked funds have experienced outflows of $860 million.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached a new milestone, hitting 22,000 during the trading session on Wednesday and closing above that level, but there was less money than you might think riding on the venerable stock index's latest rise. While the Dow remains the most-watched snapshot of market bullish or bearishness, the DJIA has little to no actual role in market portfolios as index funds and ETFs continue to gain acceptance as core stock exposure for many investors.

The asset flow data covering the latest decade of index funds' domination of the investing landscape shows just how out of sync the Dow as a measure of market sentiment and the Dow as an actual investment proxy have become. In the past five-year period, Dow-benchmarked funds and ETFs have experienced net outflows.

S&P 500 index funds and ETFs

  • 1-year inflows: $100 billion
  • 3-year inflows: $178 billion
  • 5-year inflows: $236 billion
  • 10-year inflows: $302 billion

DJIA index funds and ETFs

  • 1-year inflows: $2 billion
  • 3-year inflows: $1.9 billion
  • 5-year outflows: $860 million
  • 10-year inflows: $3 billion

(Source: Morningstar)

It's no longer novel to make the "Dow is irrelevant" argument as it reaches another milestone. It was done when it first crossed the 20,000 mark also and will be done again at 23,000.

And there are a few big caveats: There are many, many more S&P 500 index funds and ETFs — 152, according to Morningstar — than Dow Jones Industrial Average-benchmarked ones, of which there are only five funds. But that can lead to the question, "Why haven't more fund sponsors launched Dow ETFs?"

A spokeswoman for SP Dow Jones Indices said that as an independent index provider, it doesn't comment on ETF product strategy and does not track flow information.

State Street Global Advisors, manager of the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF (DIA), which has virtually all of the assets among those five Dow funds, said it is a well-known barometer for U.S. large-cap stocks, with one of the longest-standing track records for an investable index, and can provide investors information on the health of the U.S. economy.

Trader Peter Tuchman, center, wears a "Dow 22,000" hat as he works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.
Richard Drew | AP
Trader Peter Tuchman, center, wears a "Dow 22,000" hat as he works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.

Another caveat: The Dow is a focused index of 30 stocks, and a price-weighted one, whereas the S&P 500 provides much more diversified exposure to 500 stocks, and that includes all 30 Dow stocks. Focused stock funds once had their heyday, but that was in the era when actively managed funds ruled and brand-name stock pickers could sell their proprietary "best stock picks" funds through the big brokerage houses.

"The DJIA is a less-appealing index investment than the S&P 500, because it only owns 30 stocks, so it is less well diversified than the S&P 500, and it weights its holdings by share price rather than market capitalization. There is no good economic rationale for doing that," said Morningstar analyst Alex Bryan.

The Dow's price-weighting approach leads to further concentration: The top 10 holdings represent more than half of the portfolio and it prevents any Dow index funds from holding a few names with high share prices, like Alphabet, which would represent more than 20 percent of the portfolio if it were included. Meanwhile, Apple, the most valuable company in the world, is only the sixth- largest holding in the Dow. And Boeing, currently the top holding, has had excellent performance this year that has helped the Dow marginally outperform the S&P 500.

Bryan said the best argument for investing in the DJIA is that it offers exposure to highly profitable industry leaders with durable competitive advantages. But there are also more direct ways of getting that exposure through a quality or dividend growth ETF, such as the iShares Edge MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF (QUAL) or the Vanguard Dividend Appreciation Index ETF (VIG).

The recent run for the Dow should not mislead investors into thinking it's a viable alternative to the S&P 500 as a core stock market holding, said Neena Mishra, CFA and director of ETF research at Zacks Investment Research.

"Share price weighting is arbitrary and antiquated. The index is just a relic from the times when computing other types of weightings was not easy. ... Dow ETFs did particularly well after the election due to their higher exposure to industrials and financials and that brought them back in focus this year, but S&P 500 ETFs will always remain more popular with investors."

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Drew Voros, editor in chief of ETF.com, said the Dow has always been the headline index, right or wrong, but added that "Back in the day, people didn't invest in indexes, so what is the appropriate index to invest one is a relatively new kind of mainstream thought."

Mitch Goldberg, president of investment advisory firm ClientFirst Strategy, said the Dow Jones Industrial Average has an identity problem. "It's not a true industrial indicator like the S&P 500 Select Sector Industrial ETF (XLI). What it has going for it is a compilation of great companies. But Disney, JNJ and AAPL aren't exactly smokestack companies," he said.

"The Dow is a heritage benchmark that depicts the industrial fabric of America, which back in its origination meant a large allocation to railroads and electric companies. Now, the U.S. industrial imprint on the global economy is more service-based, and that is reflected with well-established technology, home retail, and financial service firms," Matthew Bartolini, Head of SPDR Americas Research, explained via email.

Dave Nadig, CEO of ETF.com, said the Dow was never designed to be investable and, for the most part, investors have complied. "Culturally, we pay attention to all sorts of things that have little actual impact: the British monarchy, 'America's Got Talent', Civil War re-enactments. The Dow fits in the same camp — it mostly reminds us of where we've come from."

As far as the future of investing, Nadig's comment implies the question isn't why the S&P 500 has won the war of the index era, but maybe, Why anyone would invest in a Dow-benchmarked fund at all?

"A lot of this, almost all of it, is marketing. I'm not sure if investors are missing anything. It's still a large-cap asset class like S&P. If I never saw it quoted again, I'd be just fine," Goldberg said.

But don't count on that. Morningstar's Bryan has a theory why the Dow still retains some allure as an investment.

"If I had to speculate, I would guess it's because the DJIA gets a lot of press," Bryan said.

Story updated with Dow closing price above 22,000 on Wednesday.

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