Dow Jones' 'record' no reason to party like it's 1999

Wow, the Dow Jones industrial average blew past its previous high, set on Oct. 9, 2007, on Tuesday, closing up 125.95 points at 14,253.77.

What’s next?

Who knows?

I say, “Get on with your lives, citizens.”

The media (of which I am a card-carrying member) get hung up on round numbers, milestones, and anniversaries. But in the grand scheme of our tight-money times, the Dow’s surpassing a previous high is quite meaningless.

After all, median household income remains below where it was during the recession. Personal income declined 3.6 percent in January, according to the Commerce Department. Most of us pay rent from our paychecks, not dividend payments from our stock holdings.

Even worse, Tuesday’s “record” is misleading because it does not use inflation-adjusted data, which indicates the Dow would need to rise at least 9 percent more to reach its all-time high. That means no record until the 30-stock average surpasses the 15,600 level.

Yes, most of us would prefer that stocks rise rather than fall. But the Dow could quickly retreat from that new high. The following day it could leap forward again. Should we throw another party then?

The reason we pay attention to such moves is that the Dow’s new nominal high means that, for many investors, the wealth-destroying nightmare of the financial crisis is nearly over.

The Dow hit its previous nominal high of 14,164.53 on Oct. 9, 2007, and commenced to free fall, hitting its trough of 6,547.05 on March 9, 2009. It was painful to open your quarterly IRA or 401(k) plan statements during that stretch.

Even if your retirement portfolio isn’t 100 percent healed, it’s probably in better shape now than it was when the major market indexes hit those lows in March 2009.

I wrote several columns about my own retirement accounts as the financial crisis tipped the United States into outright recession. I did so because worried readers were calling and sending e-mails wondering what they should do.

I’ll repeat now what I wrote then: No one should look to a newspaper columnist for financial advice.

While I rebalanced my portfolio, which was heavily tilted toward equities, I continued to contribute to my 401(k) plan throughout those bad old days. Blame it on inertia; good savings habits can be hard to break.

Although I’d hesitate to say I was confident that stocks would recover, even a cursory glance at the chutes and ladders game played by the stock market over the decades shows that eventually, records fall.

Just don’t try predicting them.

But, of course, plenty of people do.

So where do some of them see the market heading from here? Remember: It depends on whom you ask.

Wharton finance professor Jeremy Siegel told CNBC in late January that he saw the Dow going “well above” 15,000 during 2013 and that the 16,000 and 17,000 levels were possible.

In his Tuesday note, Ed Yardeni, chief investment strategist of the bullish Yardeni Research Inc., wrote that he sees more room for the S&P 500 to run based on recent strong corporate earnings.

Not all agree. Last August, Bill Gross, head of the very successful bond-loving team at Pimco, pronounced that “the cult of equity is dying.”

David A. Rosenberg, a noted bearish investment strategist with Gluskin Sheff & Associates Inc., wrote in his daily note Tuesday that his firm does not “have tremendous conviction over the longevity of the most recent rally.”

In the end, investing is about making decisions. Even choosing to do nothing, as I did four years ago, is a decision. It worked out for me. Was it the optimal strategy? Probably not.

So I won’t be celebrating any Dow record. But I do sleep at night, and by that measure, it was the right strategy for the times.