The Dow theory

The Dow theory has been around for almost 100 years, yet even in today's volatile and technology-driven markets, the basic components of Dow theory still remain valid. While there are those who may think that it is different this time, a read through The Dow Theory will attest that the stock market behaves the same today as it did almost 100 years ago.

Background

Charles Dow developed the Dow theory from his analysis of market price action in the late 19th century. Until his death in 1902, Dow was part owner as well as editor of The Wall Street Journal. Although he never wrote a book on the subject, he did write some editorials that reflected his views on speculation and the role of the rail and industrial averages.

Even though Charles Dow is credited with developing the Dow theory, it was S.A. Nelson and William Hamilton who later refined the theory into what it is today. Nelson wrote The ABC of Stock Speculation and was the first to actually use the term "Dow theory." Hamilton further refined the theory through a series of articles in The Wall Street Journal from 1902 to 1929. Hamilton also wrote The Stock Market Barometer in 1922, which sought to explain the theory in detail.

Market Movements

There are 3 types of movements: primary movements, secondary movements and daily fluctuations. Primary moves last from a few months to many years and represent the broad underlying trend of the market. Secondary (or reaction) movements last from a few weeks to a few months and move counter to the primary trend. Daily fluctuations can move with or against the primary trend and last from a few hours to a few days, but usually not more than a week.

Stages of Bull and Bear markets

Stages relate as much to the psychological state of the market as to the movement of prices. A primary bull market is defined as a long sustained advance marked by improving business conditions that elicit increased speculation and demand for stocks. A primary bear market is defined as a long sustained decline marked by deteriorating business conditions and subsequent decrease in demand for stocks. In both primary bull markets and primary bear markets, there will be secondary movements that run counter to the major trend.

Bull market

Stage 1 - Accumulation: The first stage of a bull market is largely indistinguishable from the last reaction rally of a bear market. Pessimism, which was excessive at the end of the bear market, still reigns at the beginning of a bull market. It is a period when the public is out of stocks, the news from corporates and valuations are usually at historical lows. However, it is at this stage that the so-called "smart money" begins to accumulate stocks. This is the stage of the market when those with patience see value in owning stocks for the long haul. Stocks are cheap, but nobody seems to want them.

In the first stage of a bull market, stocks begin to find a bottom and quietly firm up. When the market starts to rise, there is widespread disbelief that a bull market has begun. After the first leg peaks and starts to head back down, the bears come out proclaiming that the bear market is not over. It is at this stage that careful analysis is warranted to determine if the decline is a secondary movement (a correction of the first leg up). If it is a secondary move, then the low forms above the previous low, a quiet period will ensue as the market firms and then an advance will begin. When the previous peak is surpassed, the beginning of the second leg and a primary bull will be confirmed.

Stage 2 - Big Move: The second stage of a primary bull market is usually the longest, and sees the largest advance in prices. It is a period marked by improving business conditions and increased valuations in stocks. Earnings begin to rise again and confidence starts to mend. This is considered the easiest stage to make money as participation is broad and the trend followers begin to participate.

Stage 3 - Excess: The third stage of a primary bull market is marked by excessive speculation and the appearance of inflationary pressures. Dow formed these theorems about 100 years ago, but this scenario is certainly familiar. During the third and final stage, the public is fully involved in the market, valuations are excessive and confidence is extraordinarily high. This is the mirror image to the first stage of the bull market. A Wall Street axiom: When the taxi cab drivers begin to offer tips, the top cannot be far off.

Bear market

Stage 1 - Distribution: Just as accumulation is the hallmark of the first stage of a primary bull market, distribution marks the beginning of a bear market. As the "smart money" begins to realize that business conditions are not quite as good as once thought, they start to sell stocks. The public is still involved in the market at this stage and become willing buyers. There is little in the headlines to indicate a bear market is at hand and general business conditions remain good. However, stocks begin to lose a bit of their luster and the decline begins to take hold.

While the market declines, there is little belief that a bear market has started and most forecasters remain bullish. After a moderate decline, there is a reaction rally (secondary move) that retraces a portion of the decline. Reaction rallies during bear markets were quite swift and sharp and a large percentage of the losses would be recouped in a matter of days or perhaps weeks. This quick and sudden movement would invigorate the bulls to proclaim the bull market alive and well. However, the reaction high of the secondary move would form and be lower than the previous high. After making a lower high, a break below the previous low would confirm that this was the second stage of a bear market.

Stage 2 - Big Move: As with the primary bull market, stage two of a primary bear market provides the largest move. This is when the trend has been identified as down and business conditions begin to deteriorate. Earnings estimates are reduced, shortfalls occur, profit margins shrink and revenues fall. As business conditions worsen, the sell-off continues.

Stage 3 - Despair: At the top of a primary bull market, hope springs eternal and excess is the order of the day. By the final stage of a bear market, all hope is lost and stocks are frowned upon. Valuations are low, but the selling continues as participants seek to sell no matter what. Corporate news is bad, the economic outlook bleak and not a buyer is to be found. The market will continue to decline until all the bad news is fully priced into stocks. Once stocks fully reflect the worst possible outcome, the cycle begins again.

Conclusions

The goal of Dow and Hamilton was to identify the primary trend and catch the big moves. They understood that the market was influenced by emotion and prone to over-reaction both up and down. With this in mind, they concentrated on identification and following: identify the trend and then follow the trend. The trend is in place until proved otherwise. That is when the trend will end, when it is proved otherwise.

Dow theory helps investors identify facts, not make assumptions or forecast. It can be dangerous when investors and traders begin to assume. Predicting the market is a difficult, if not impossible, game. Hamilton readily admitted that the Dow theory was not infallible. While Dow theory may be able to form the foundation for analysis, it is meant as a starting point for investors and traders to develop analysis guidelines that they are comfortable with and understand.

Reading the markets is an empirical science. As such there will be exceptions to the theorems put forth by Hamilton and Dow. They believed that success in the markets required serious study and analysis that would be fraught with successes and failures. Success is a great thing, but don't get too smug about it. Failures, while painful, should be looked upon as learning experiences. Technical analysis is an art form and the eye grows keener with practice. Study both successes and failures with an eye to the future.

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