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NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 23:  Traders wear hats that say 'DOW 18,000' as they work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during the afternoon of  December 23, 2014 in New York City. The Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed a landmark by closing above 18,000 points today.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Andrew Burton via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 23: Traders wear hats that say 'DOW 18,000' as they work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during the afternoon of December 23, 2014 in New York City. The Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed a landmark by closing above 18,000 points today. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The Dow’s march to the 18,000 level had to overcome a long lineup of obstacles this year. None of them was a match against the Federal Reserve and the U.S. economy.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 5.6 percent over the past five days for the biggest rally since 2011, climbing to 18,024.17 yesterday, as the central bank pledged patience in raising interest rates while data showed the economy roared the most in the third quarter since 2003. A measure of expected volatility in the Dow has fallen the most in three years during the recent rally.

U.S. equities faced upheavals in 2014 that threatened to derail a bull market in its sixth year, ranging from violence in the Ukraine to an Ebola outbreak and a bear market in oil prices. Yet the Dow’s worst retreat was only 7 percent, and the gauge recovered from each decline in about two months.

“Things have been getting better for five years,” John Fox, director of research at Fenimore Asset Management in Cobleskill, New York, said in a phone interview. “Corporate America is doing fantastic, earnings are at an all time high, interest rates are low, inflation is low, and now you have the added positive of low gasoline prices. All of that adds up to a pretty good environment for equities.”

It’s been 172 days since the Dow closed above 17,000 on July 3, data compiled by Bloomberg show. That’s the fifth-fastest trip between thousands, with the record being 35 days to 11,000 in May 1999. It took the index almost 5,200 days to go from 1,000 to 2,000 between 1972 and 1987, according to Howard Silverblatt, an index analyst at New York-based S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Fed Stimulus

The Dow closed at a six-month low on Oct. 16 before rallying more than 1,882 points, or 12 percent, to top 18,000. The Chicago Board Options Exchange Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDU) Volatility Index, a measure of demand for options on the blue-chip stocks gauge, has bounced back after two jumps of more than 70 percent since September.

The industrial average has risen about 175 percent during the bull market that began in March 2009, propelled by better-than-estimated corporate results and three rounds of Fed bond purchases. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has more than tripled in that time. It rose 0.2 percent yesterday to finish at an all-time high.

Throughout 2014, the Dow has shown an ability to bounce back from selloffs driven by macroeconomic events.

Ukraine Turmoil

From a high on Jan. 7 through Feb. 3, the benchmark gauge tumbled 7 percent as the Fed began trimming its monthly bond purchases, a move that sent emerging-market currencies and equities tumbling. The Dow recovered from that drop by April 2, rallying to a year-to-date high.

A smaller slump took place in the U.S. summer, as turmoil in eastern Ukraine sent the gauge from a record on July 16 to a loss of 4.5 percent by Aug. 7. The Dow rallied to a fresh high on Sept. 19 amid optimism the Fed would support growth even as the economy showed signs of strengthening.

The blue-chip measure slid 6.7 percent from Sept. 19 to Oct. 16. This time, investors sold on concern that signs of slowdown in China and the European Union would hurt the U.S. economy, while the Ebola virus threatened to spread beyond Africa.

The Dow reversed those losses before the calendar flipped to November, closing at an all-time high on Oct. 31.

The industrial gauge has climbed about 9 percent this year, almost three times more than the Russell 2000 Index of small-cap companies.

2014 Records

This is the 36th time this year the Dow has closed at an all-time high. The Dow reached records on 52 occasions in 2013, as the index recovered from the financial crisis to top its previous high from October 2007 for the first time. The S&P 500 (SPX) has set records on 51 days this year.

The Dow’s rise has been aided by better-than-forecast economic data and corporate earnings that beat analyst forecasts.

Reports yesterday showed the world’s largest economy expanded at the fastest pace in more than a decade, with gross domestic product growing at a 5 percent annual rate from July through September. Last month, American employers hired more people than at any time in almost three years and the breadth of industries adding jobs was the broadest since 1998.

For the third-quarter earnings season, 80 percent of S&P 500 companies beat profit estimates and 60 percent surpassed revenue projections, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Analysts forecast earnings for the S&P 500 grew 6.9 percent this year, and will climb 6.6 percent in 2015. The U.S. economy is estimated to grow 3 percent next year.

Tech Boost

Technology companies have had some of the biggest gains in the Dow this year, with Intel Corp. rising more than 44 percent and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) jumping 29 percent. Consumer shares such as Home Depot Inc., Walt Disney Co. and Nike Inc. have also risen at least 22 percent to lead the 30-stock gauge’s advance.

Nike, UnitedHealth Group Inc., Visa Inc., Home Depot and Intel have paced gains during the gauge’s run to 18,000 in the second half of the year, with each rallying more than 20 percent from July 3. Caterpillar Inc., International Business Machines Corp. and Chevron Corp. have been the worst performers, with slumps of more than 13 percent in that period.

The rally that put the Dow over 18,000 came after it retreated 5 percent from a record on Dec. 5 as oil extended losses this year to more than 40 percent, raising concern that economies from Russia to Venezuela may fall into recessions. The ruble tumbled to a record low versus the dollar even as the nation’s central bank introduced stimulus.