Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 | 9:50 a.m.
NEW YORK — The Dow stock market index flirted with the 14,000 line Friday, dashing above it several times throughout the morning and bringing reminders of the last time it hit that mark — almost a different era, before the financial crisis rocked the world economy.
After rising steadily in early trading, the Dow Jones industrial average briefly crossed 14,000 shortly after 10 a.m. EST. It lasted only a moment. Then, after 11 a.m., it started flitting above that key mark again before falling back to around 13,990. The other major stock indexes were also up, pushed higher by the U.S. jobs report and auto sales.
Crossing 14,000 is a rarefied event: The Dow has done so only 15 times in its history, and the last time was more than five years ago, on Oct. 17, 2007.
If the gains hold throughout the day and the Dow closes above 14,000, that would put it in territory even more uncommon. On just nine days has the Dow managed to stay above the 14,000 mark until the end of trading. Friday's gains also mean that the Dow is within striking distance of its all-time record of 14,164.53, which it reached on Oct. 9, 2007.
For the average investor, that was all back when the stock market still seemed like a party. Housing prices were starting to ebb but hadn't cratered. Jobs were abundant, with unemployment at 4.7 percent — compared to 7.9 percent now. Lehman Brothers still existed. So did Bear Stearns, Wachovia and Washington Mutual.
To be sure, the Dow is only one indicator of the economy. And while crossing 14,000 would be an important psychological milestone, it wouldn't be much else.
The Dow is an index of 30 big companies, and its purpose is to represent how the broader stock market is faring. But the stock market is more a representation of how traders are feeling about the economy than the economy's underlying fundamentals. And many investors don't even think the Dow is the best way to track the market: They prefer the much bigger Standard & Poor's benchmark index, which follows 500 companies.
Joe Gordon, managing partner at Gordon Asset Management in North Carolina, wasn't celebrating. He doesn't expect the gains to hold. The fact that small investors are finally getting back in the stock market, he said, makes him think that stocks are due for a downturn. After the Dow hit its all-time record in 2007, it fell almost steadily and had lost nearly 40 percent of its value a year later.
"It is good trivia to talk about on television and the radio," Gordon said, referring to the 14,000 mark. "It's meaningless to the average professional." And for workers still unemployed by the financial crisis, he said, "it really means nothing to them."
Late morning, the Dow was up 134 points to 13,995. The Standard & Poor's 500 rose 14 to 1,512. The Nasdaq composite index was up 31 to 3,173.
Auto sales helped. Toyota, Ford, GM and Chrysler all reported double-digit gains for January.
The government jobs report that pushed stocks forward was mixed, but traders chose to focus on the positive. The U.S. said it added 157,000 jobs in January, which was in line with expectations. Unemployment inched up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent in December. But, encouragingly, the government also reported that hiring over the past two years has been higher than it originally thought.
The jobs number is based on a survey of employers, and the unemployment rate is based on a separate survey of households, which is why they can diverge.
In Europe, tentative and incremental signs of a recovery were enough to push up stocks in France, Britain and Germany. December unemployment in the European Union was lower than analysts had feared, inflation unexpectedly fell, and a survey raised hopes of some growth in the manufacturing sector.
But there were also reminders that the debt problem is far from solved. The Netherlands was also forced to take over one of its major banks, to try to stave off a collapse. In Greece, dock workers extended a strike over the government's spending cuts.
Among companies making big moves:
— Drugmaker Merck fell 3 percent, down $1.28 to $41.97. Its fourth-quarter profit suffered because of competition from generic medicines against its blockbuster allergy drug Singulair.
— Insurance company MetLife rose 2 percent, or 75 cents, to $38.09, after saying it plans to buy the largest private pension fund administrator in Chile.
— Zoetis, an animal health business that Pfizer just spun off, made its debut on the stock market. It was up 18 percent, rising $4.75 to $30.75.