Why Does the Stock Market Keep Going Up?

Many people were taken by surprise when the stock market reached new highs after the 2016 election, with the Dow Jones industrial average (DJIA) breaking 20,000. But the recent record highs are only the latest in a long trend of stock market growth extending back well over 100 years.

The average rate of return for the DJIA since 1896 is about 7 percent when adjusted for inflation. Looking at a broader representation of the overall stock market, the average rate of return for the Standard & Poor's (S&P) 500 index since it's inception in 1928 is about 10 percent per year.

Of course, if you pay attention to the stock market, you know that stocks do not move steadily up all the time. Sometimes there are sudden market declines, such as the crash of 1929 that led to the Great Depression, or the 2008 collapse that led to the Great Recession. Sometimes there are long periods of market stagnation when stock prices do not go up much at all, such as during the 1970s. But over time, the long-term trend has been that stock values keep on pushing up, even after setbacks, and routinely go on to break record highs.

What makes stock values keep going higher and higher?

Investors think stocks will go up

Investors who decide to put money into the stock market select individual stocks and stock funds based on the financial performance of the businesses in the portfolio. Ultimately, investors weigh the potential for a stock to go up versus the risk that it will go down during their investment window.

Sometimes "irrational exuberance" seems to play a big role in driving stock prices. In a hot housing market, investors will pay essentially any price to buy a property if they are confident the price will go up, even if the price is not rational. Investors sometimes buy stock for the same reason — simply because they think someone else will pay more for it when they want to sell and they don't want to miss an opportunity to make a big gain. In some extreme cases, such as hot initial public offerings (IPOs), stock valuation seems to be driven by speculation without much solid financial basis.

Businesses have figured out how to make products for less

One way that businesses have become more valuable, and therefore garnered higher stock valuation, is by increasing productivity and efficiency. If a business can produce its goods and services at a lower cost, higher profits can be achieved.

Businesses boost their efficiency by using automation, optimizing product designs and reuse, and merging or partnering with other companies with complementary resources and capabilities. The continuous effort by businesses to reduce their costs and run their business more efficiently keeps driving stock prices up over time.

Fancy new products (with higher profit margins)

Innovation and technological advances result in new products with higher profit margins than established products. Consumers will pay a premium to get the latest technology and newest capabilities. When a new type of product is launched, there is a window of time when little or no competition is available in the market. This is why the introduction of new products keeps driving stock values up.

Growing consumerism

In the old days, it was common for people to grow their own food, make their own clothes, and craft other household items such as soap and even furniture. When people were more self-sufficient and made most things for themselves, opportunities for businesses to sell products to customers at a profit was limited.

Fast forward to today. The population has increased significantly, and most people buy products instead of making things themselves. As the number of consumers grows, and the demand by consumers for more and more products increases, so does profit for businesses that make and sell products.

Why did stocks unexpectedly go up after Trump was elected?

After an initial tumble in stock futures following the 2016 election, the stock market rallied during the following months and hit a record high, with the DJIA reaching 20,000 for the first time ever on January 25, 2017. Why did the stock market go up after the election of an unpredictable new leader?

Markets typically react negatively to uncertainty, and that is what happened when the S&P 500 and DJIA market futures fell around 4 percent on the night of the election. But soon, stock prices started rising again. Investors apparently feel that the new president will follow traditional Republican strategies of lowering taxes on businesses and reducing environmental, safety, and consumer protection regulations, resulting in higher potential profits. Also, the possibility of increased military spending and spending on huge infrastructure projects raises expectations for short-term economic growth among investors.

Will the stock market keep going up?

Stepping back and looking at the potential for stock market growth over the coming decades, the elements for continued stock market growth seem to be forthcoming.

New levels of automation promise to drive productivity and reduce the cost to produce and deliver products to consumers. Technical innovations such as renewable energy, virtual reality, augmented reality, and medical breakthroughs appear poised to result in highly profitable new products. New consumers are likely to enter the marketplace as developing economies grow, increasing overall demand for manufactured products and driving business profits higher.

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