The Long-Term Outlook for Stocks and the Economy
It's easy to get caught up with day-to-day events and miss the forest through the trees. Unfortunately, the big picture looks less than confidence-inspiring.

The stock market’s summer performance has been nothing but stunning. Seeing daily swings in excess of 4% has become as common as American fast food in China.

Sometimes it’s helpful to step back and shift the focus from day-to-day changes to multidecade trends. This kind of big-picture evaluation shows whether events like this summer’s meltdown are just a hiccup or confirmation of a long-term trend (change).

More Than Just a Multi-Decade Fluke

Gradual changes often are so subtle that they are nearly invisible to the naked eye or novice observer. But, just because a change is gradual doesn’t mean it’s insignificant.

Let’s take a look at the basic makeup of the U.S. economy. A few decades ago, sweat-trenched U.S. manufacturing facilities were the most fertile, growth-producing environment on the planet. This growth was fueled by “Made in America” products. The growth was organic and it was real.

The first red box in the chart below captures this period of powerful organic growth. It lasted from 1947-66. During this period, GDP growth averaged 4.18%.

The second red box captures a period of growth fueled by low interest and financial engineering. During this period — from 1975-2000 — GDP growth averaged only 3.4%.

(The above chart was featured in the March 2011 ETF Profit Strategy Newsletter.)

The Only Original Dow Component, Not Some Hot Tech Stock

General Electric (NYSE:GE), a company that prospered during both phases, aptly illustrates the difference between both periods.

Until the late 1960s, GE was known for manufacturing quality, American-made products like refrigerators, washing machines, stoves, light bulbs and jet engines. GE manufactured real products, provided real jobs and made real profits.

Starting in the 1980s, GE changed its focus from blue-collar manufacturing to white-collar alchemy. GE ventured into television and high finance. GE’s focus shifted from building quality products to financing purchases of competitor products. Ultimately, it went from manufacturing real products to building a financial house of cards.

In August 2000, GE traded as high as $60.50 a share. In 2009 it was as low as $5.73 — a 90% drop. Today, it’s hovering around $15. As you ponder this change in valuation, keep in mind that GE is the only original Dow Jones Industrial Average component, not some hot-today cold-tomorrow tech stock.

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