Traders help markets function.  Because they take short-term positions, sometimes hours, a day or a few days, they are constantly buying and selling.  This means that for the rest of us, investors who want to have returns over months and years, there is always a ready market of buyers and sellers out there allowing us to open, increase, decrease or close a position.  Traders are important to having a constantly available market for most equity stocks.  But, what we know most about traders is that over the long term more than 95% don’t make money.  Despite all the transaction volume, their rates of return don’t come close to the Dow Jones Industrial Average – in fact most of them have negative rates of return.  Only a few make money.

For investors it’s not important what the daily prices are of a stock, but rather what markets the company is in, and whether the markets and the company are profitably growing.  On days like today, which saw the DJIA down triple digits and up triple digits in the same day (read article here), it’s really important we keep in mind that the value of any company in the short term, on any given day, can fluctuate wildly.  But honestly, that’s not important.  What’s important is whether the company can exp[ect to grow over months and years.  Because if it can, it’s value will go up.

Let’s take a look at a couple of companies in the news today.  First there’s Google (see chart here).  Despite the recession, despite the financial sector meltdown and despite the wild volatility of the financial markets, the number of internet ads continued to go up.  Paid clicks actually went up 18% versus a year ago. (read article about Google results here).  Gee, imagine that.  Do you suppose that given the election interest, the market interest during this financial crisis and the desire to learn at low cost more people than ever might be turning to the internet?  Does anyone really think internet use is going to decline – even in this global recession?  Google is positioned with a near-monopoly in internet ad placement (Yahoo! is fast becoming obsolete – and is trying to arrange to use Google technology to save itself see Yahoo! chart here]).  By competing in a high growth market – and constantly keeping White Space alive developing new products in this and other high-growth markets – Google can look out 3, 5, 10 years and be reasonably assured of growing revenues and profits.  And that’s irrespective of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (where Google might well replace GM someday) or whether Microsoft buys the bumbling Yahoo! brand (read about possible acquisition here).

On the other hand, there’s Harley Davidson (see chart here).  Motorcycles use considerably less gasoline than autos, so you would think that people would be buying them this past summer as gasoline hit record high $4.00/gallon plus prices.  Yet, Harley saw it’s sales tumble 15.5% (much worse than the heavyweight cycle overall market drop of 3%) (read article about Harley Davidson’s results here.)  The problem is that Harley is an icon – for folks over 50!  The whole "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Easy Rider" image was part of the 1940s post war rebellion, and then the 1960s anti-war rebellion.  Both not relevant for the vast majority of motorcycle buyers who are under 35 years old!  Additionally, long a company to Defend & Extend its brand, Harley Davidson has raised the average price of its motorcycles to well over $25,000 – a sum greater than most small cars!  Comparably sized, and technologicially superior, motorcycles made by Japanese manufacturers sell for $10,000 and less!  Worse, the really fast growing part of the market is small motorcycles and scooters that can achieve 45 to 90 miles per gallon – compared to the 30 mile per gallon Harley Davidsons – and Harley has no product at all in that high growth segment!  Harley Davidson is a dying technology and a dying brand in an overall growing market.  No wonder the company is selling at multi-year lows (down 50% this year and 67% over 2 years) .  Even though the stock market may be down, Harley Davidson is unlikely to be a good investment even when the market eventually goes back up (if Harley survives that long without bankruptcy!)

Watching the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or the daily stock price of any company, isn’t very helpful.  Daily, prices are controlled by the activity of traders – who come and go incredibly fast and mostly lose money.  What’s important is whether the company is keeping itself in the Rapids of Growth.  Google is doing a great job at this.  Harley Davidson is Locked-in to its old image and thoroughly entrenched in trying to Defend & Extend its Lock-in – completely ignoring for the past decade the more rapid growth in sport bikes, smaller bikes and scooters.  As investors, customers, employees and suppliers what we care about is the ability of management to Disrupt their Lockins and use White Space to stay in the Rapids of growth.