Nasdaq closes above 5,000 for the first time since dot-com bubble

Fifteen years have passed since the Nasdaq index, which represents mainly technology stocks, was last near the 5,000 level. At the close of trading Monday, it soared to 5,008 for the first time since the dot-com bust.

Since the dot-com bubble, the index has become more diversified and earnings more solid

After 15 years, the Nasdaq index is approaching the high it hit in 2000, just before the dot-com bubble burst. (Canadian Press)

The last time the Nasdaq was this high, Bill Clinton was president, your internet was probably still dial-up, Microsoft dominated the tech world and the iPod, iPhone and iPad didn't exist.

Fifteen years have passed since the Nasdaq index, which represents mainly technology-related stocks, was last near the 5,000 level. On Monday at the close it was at 5,008, just shy of its record high. It is up more than 5.7 per cent since the beginning of this year.

The Dow also hit a record, closing at 18,288 and the S&P 500 was at a high of 2,117.

The Nasdaq index has clawed back from the dot-com bust, riding a six-year bull market, and is just below its all-time high of 5,048.62 reached March 10, 2000.

But this isn't the Nasdaq of Pets.com and Webvan, when companies were valued on "cash burn rates" and "eyeballs."

"Certainly, the Nasdaq at 5,000 conjures up images of a tech bubble," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank. "But we've had time for business profits to grow into those crazy expectations 15 years ago."

As the tech-mania took hold, investors pushed up the prices of all kinds of internet-related stocks. Some were never profitable and disappeared. Others, like Priceline.com and Amazon, have survived and prospered.

And there are newcomers, like Facebook and Netflix, that were unheard of in 2000.

The Nasdaq, while still focused on technology companies, is a little more diversified than it was back then. And while the index, which tracks 2,500-plus stocks, has been steadily climbing since 2011, its ascent isn't the crazed surge that preceded its last record close.

Here's a look at the Nasdaq then and now.

What drives the market?

The Nasdaq's current rise has been driven by technology and health care. In a slow-growth world, investors favour industries where earnings will be better than average. This pair qualifies. Tech stocks are poised to benefit as companies increase their spending on equipment and software to cut costs and improve productivity. Health care stocks have been climbing as investors bet that biotechnology companies will discover the next blockbuster drug.

Together, tech and health account for almost two thirds of the Nasdaq's market value.

"Stocks follow earnings, and both tech and health care have been standouts," said Jim McDonald, chief investment officer at Northern Trust.

One stock in particular holds sway over the Nasdaq: Apple. Its market value has surged to over $750 billion from $22.5 billion in March 2000. The company accounts for 10 per cent of the Nasdaq's market value.

Powered by tech and health care, the Nasdaq has climbed 15 per cent over the past year, a more tempered rise than the 109 per cent surge in the year before its last peak in 2000.

Back in 2000, the Nasdaq had a much heavier tech-focus. At its peak, tech stocks made up 65 per cent of the index compared with 43 per cent today. Telecommunication companies were also a big component, accounting for 12 per cent of the index's market value versus 0.8 per cent now.

The biggest stock in the index was Microsoft with a market valuation of $525 billion. Apple had yet to release the iPod, iPhone or the iPad.

How expensive are stocks?

The price-earnings ratio of the Nasdaq, a measure of how much investors are willing to pay for every dollar of earnings the companies in the index generate, is 20.

When the Nasdaq was at its highest in 2000, its price-earnings ratio reached 194.

Valuations placed on tech stocks were "off the charts," says Russ Koesterich, chief investment strategist at asset manager BlackRock.

The Dow and S&P top records

Like the Nasdaq, both the broader Standard & Poor's 500 index and the Dow Jones industrial average are trading at record highs, underpinned by record company earnings and optimism that the economy will continue to strengthen gradually.

Then the S&P 500 was also surging in 2000, rising with the internet bubble. The S&P 500 peaked at its then-record close of 1,527.35, on March 24, 2000. The Dow closed at a record of 11,722.98 on Jan. 14, 2000.

Who are the Nasdaq heavyweights?

Apple is the current titan and Microsoft is a distant second with a market value of $361 billion. Google, Amazon and Facebook round out the top five. The top 20, however, also includes Starbucks, pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts and retailer Costco.

When the Nasdaq reached its record in 2000, Microsoft was the biggest company in the index. Cisco, Intel, Oracle and Sun Microsystems completed the top five. The biggest 20 companies in the index were in technology or telecommunications.

What's happening in the economy?

The U.S. economy is slowly recovering from the financial crisis and Great Recession. Even with a slowdown in growth to 2.2 per cent in the final quarter of last year, many economists forecast an expansion above 3 per cent in 2015. Hiring is picking up and the unemployment rate, now at 5.7 per cent, is falling. Economists expect steady, if not spectacular growth.

In 2000, optimism over the economy was high. The U.S. government had recorded its largest budget surplus in nearly 50 years in 1998. At the end of 1999 the U.S. economy grew at a rate of 7.1 per cent, and the unemployment rate stood at four per cent. The first chapter of the Economic Report of the President, published in February of 2000, was entitled "Sustaining a Record-Breaking Expansion."

What about corporate earnings?

Company earnings have been rising steadily since the Great Recession and are at record levels. Earnings for the average S&P 500 company are forecast to increase by 1.5 per cent this year, according to S&P Capital IQ.

Company earnings surged in 2000. The average S&P 500 company increased its earnings by almost 12 per cent. The hangover came a year later though, when earnings slumped by 19 per cent.

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