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Dow record? Who cares? Economy still stinks!

March 5, 2013: 12:00 PM ET
The Dow may be at an all-time high. But why celebrate when the economic recovery remains anemic?

The Dow may be at an all-time high. But why celebrate when the economic recovery remains anemic?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.

The Dow Jones industrial average hit a new all-time high today, topping the 14,200 level for the first time. Forgive me if I'm not celebrating.

Sure, I'm just as thrilled as the next guy and gal that the funds in my 401(k) plan -- as well as shares of my parent company Time Warner (TWX) -- have recovered sharply over the past four years. But the Dow is only a weighted average of 30 stocks. It's not really a reflection of the true economy.

Heck, the Dow circa October 2007 isn't even the same 30 companies as today.

The last time the Dow peaked, AIG (AIG), GM (GM), Honeywell (HON), Altria (MO) and Citigroup (C) were in it. They've since been replaced by Cisco (CSCO), Chevron (CVX), UnitedHealth (UNH), Travelers (TRV) and Bank of America (BAC). Comparing today's Dow to the 2007 make-up is like arguing whether the 1998 New York Yankees could beat the 1927 Bronx Bombers. Fun debate. But mostly pointless.

So investors and traders can pop champagne corks about this milestone. But what about the large number of people who don't have that much skin in the Wall Street game?

Consider this. When the Dow hit its now old record high back in October 2007, the economy was still in good shape -- although it was just a few months away from the beginning of the Great Recession.

The unemployment rate in October 2007 was 4.7%. In January of this year, the unemployment rate was 7.9%.(Thanks to the wonderful FRED database at the St. Louis Federal Reserve for making it easy to look up this and other historical data.)

Workers were getting more bang for their buck too. While total wages and salaries nationwide are up 6.7% since October 2007, the consumer price index has risen more than 10% during the same time frame.

Gross domestic product grew 3% in the third quarter of 2007. Revised figures from the government last week showed that GDP in the fourth quarter of 2012 rose a scant 0.1%. But I guess that's good news considering the first estimate showed a 0.1% decline.

And despite all the hoopla about the steady recovery in the housing market over the past year, real estate is still in a bear market. The most recent level of the S&P Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index, one of the most widely watched gauges of the health of housing, is still 24% below where it was in October 2007.

Related: Why America's middle class is squeezed

Public debt as a percentage of GDP is over 100% right now. Back in October 2007, debt was only about 65% of GDP.

So let's get this straight. The job market is still considerably worse than October 2007.  The economy is barely growing. Housing prices have not come back completely. And the federal government is much more heavily in hock.

The market is priced as if the U.S. recovery is in full-blown expansion mode. But that's simply not the case. Instead, we are merely entering year four of what's been a subpar recovery. And there are more reasons to be worried than excited.

Globally, there are still big concerns about the health of Europe. China may have a real estate bubble that could make the U.S. housing bust look like child's play.

And speaking of the U.S., have you noticed how dysfunctional our least and dimmest "leaders" are in Washington?

Related: First furlough notices go out

Forced budget cuts went into effect last week, even though Congress and the president bought themselves more time to avoid them when they reached a fiscal cliff deal on taxes back in January.

Given that Republicans and Democrats are showing no willingness to work together, is there any real reason to believe that they can forestall a government shutdown later this month? Or that they will be able to cobble together a meaningful agreement on budget issues before the debt ceiling needs to be raised once again in mid-May?

So why are stocks still surging? Central banks, most notably the Federal Reserve, are continuing to do everything they can to keep the market afloat. Short-term interest rates have not budged since December 2008. They remain near zero. The Fed has also been buying bonds and mortgage-backed securities through several crisis-era programs to keep long-term rates low. The yield on the 10-year Treasury right now is 1.9%. Back in October 2007, the 10-year was yielding 4.66%.

This has created an environment that's perfect for stocks. The Fed is encouraging investors to take more risks. But it is still acting like the financial crisis hasn't ended.

Companies also remain cautious. Many blue chips have been hoarding cash. Ahem, Apple (AAPL). Businesses have also done all they can to cut expenses (which often means layoffs) to keep their bottom lines growing.  Corporate profits were up more than 33% from October 2007 through last July (the most recent figures available via FRED).

Related: Why the Fed is failing to boost lending

Of course, I'm not trying to demonize corporate success. But there is a bigger disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street now than there was nearly five-and-a-half years ago.

Yes. the Dow may be at an all-time high. And the broader S&P 500 may soon hit a new peak of its own. But the American consumer is still hurting. Don't forget that as you read all the headlines about this record-setting bull market.

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Paul Lamonica
Paul R. La Monica
Assistant Managing Editor, CNNMoney

Paul R. La Monica is an assistant managing editor at CNNMoney. He is the author of the site's daily column, The Buzz, and also tweets throughout the day about the markets and economy @LaMonicaBuzz. La Monica also oversees the site's economic, markets and technology coverage.

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