It came and went in a flash each time, a number on a board for mere seconds, but its symbolic power couldn’t be dismissed.
The Dow Jones industrial average, powered higher all year by optimism that the economic recovery is finally for real, crossed 13,000 on Tuesday for the first time since May 2008.
The last time the Dow was there, unemployment was 5.4 percent, and Lehman Bros. was a solvent investment bank.
The milestone Tuesday came about two hours into the trading day. The Dow was above 13,000 for about 30 seconds, and for slightly longer at about noon and 1:30 p.m., but couldn’t hold its gains. It finished up 15.82 points at 12,965.69.
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Still, Wall Street took note of the marker.
It was just last summer that the Dow unburdened itself of 2,000 points in three terrifying weeks. Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating, Washington was fighting over the federal borrowing limit, and the European debt crisis was raging.
A second recession in the United States was a real fear. But the economy grew faster every quarter last year, and gains in the job market have been impressive, including 243,000 jobs added in January alone.
“Essentially over the last couple of months you’ve taken the two biggest fears off the table: that Europe is going to melt down and that we’re going to have another recession here,” said Scott Brown, chief economist for Raymond James.
The tumult of last summer and fall left the Dow as low as 10,655. It closed Tuesday 22 percent above that low. The Dow is 1,199 points from an all-time high, a 9 percent rally from here.
A long-awaited bailout to help Greece prevent a potentially catastrophic default, announced before dawn in Europe after 12 hours of talks, helped the Dow clear 13,000. Greece will get about $172 billion, from other European nations and the International Monetary Fund. In a separate deal, investors in Greek bonds will be asked to forgive $141.8 billion in debt.
The Dow Jones index has climbed steadily this year. It has gained 6 percent and has not lost 100 points on any day. The Greek debt crisis may be receding, but high gasoline prices are emerging as a threat to the economic recovery, and thus the stock market.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 index surpassed 1,363, its peak from April 2011, during the day but closed at 1,362.21, up 0.98 point. The Nasdaq composite, which is heavy with technology stocks and trading at levels not seen since December 2000, closed down 3.21 points at 2,948.57.
The Dow last closed above 13,000 on May 19, 2008. The next day, it crossed under 13,000, not to return for almost four years. It fell as low as 6,547 on March 9, 2009. A reading of 13,094 would double that.
Dan McMahon, director of equity trading at Raymond James, called the 13,000 mark “just a big round number” as a matter of market fundamentals. But he added: “Psychologically, it matters.”
The Dow is an imperfect measure of the economy’s health. It is made up of just 30 companies, and it’s weighted so that the few with the highest stock prices carry the most heft. A small percentage change in the stock of IBM, which is trading around $193, sways the index much more than a large change in the stock of Bank of America, which is trading around $8.
Last year, the Dow rose 5.5 percent. But strip out IBM and McDonald’s, the two stocks with the highest prices last year, and it rose just 1.8 percent, according to calculations by Birinyi Associates.
Dow Jones, which decides which 30 companies are the best barometer, says the index can accurately represent the economy because the 30 stocks make up 25 to 30 percent of the market value of all U.S. public companies.