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Dissecting This Year's Struggling Dow

The largest exchange-traded fund that tracks this index is the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF (DIA), which currently controls $11.6 billion. DIA charges an expense ratio of 0.17% and curiously pays a monthly dividend yield, which is rare for an equity-oriented ETF.

As you can see on the chart above, DIA has significantly underperformed high-beta sectors such as the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM) and PowerShares QQQ (QQQ), which have both broken out to new highs this week. The hot money is all chasing growth stocks that offer the potential for superior price appreciation. This is indicative of a fully engaged bull market that is seeing money shift away from larger established companies. Over the last 52 weeks, QQQ has nearly double the performance of DIA.

When you dive deeper into the underlying components of DIA, you can get a feel for exactly which areas are dragging it down. Energy has been weak with Chevron (CVX) and Exxon failing to build any kind of momentum. In addition, consumer staples stocks such as Procter & Gamble (PG) and Wal-Mart (WMT) have been moving mostly sideways for the last year, while the broader market has rallied. Even a stock that is as beloved as McDonald's (MCD) has been slowly bleeding lower since it peaked in at the beginning of 2013.

The flip side is that the stocks that are seeing the most strength are industrials, consumer discretionary names and technology companies. I think that this picture of sector strength and weakness confirms a rotation away from defensive names and into higher risk areas of the market. If we started to see a pickup in volatility similar to the correction we experienced in 2011, then DIA would likely outperform as money migrates back to a more defensive posture. The total return of DIA in 2011 was 8.05%, while IWM and QQQ posted returns of -4.43% and 3.47% respectively. Larger companies are often times seen as safer stocks during periods of prolonged price decline.

The bottom line is that I don't think you can entirely write off the Dow as a piece of history. Instead, it can be used as an important gauge of the strength of large companies during periods of exuberance and pessimism. In addition, it provides a long-term historical frame of reference from which we can look back at decades of market price data that tells a colorful story.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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