A New York Stock Exchange readerboard shows the closing number for the Dow on March 5. © Richard Drew, AP

If you need to sell papers, you splash headlines like "Brits to leave European Union over horsemeat in lasagna" even if they're total exaggerations.

When Wall Street wants to flog stocks, it runs out stories like "Dow Jones Average hits all-time high" even if the story doesn't mean what Wall Street wants the average investor to think it means.

So, yes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ($INDU) hit an all-time high on Friday, when it briefly moved above 14,400. The Dow Transportation Average ($DJT), the Russell 1000 large-cap index and the Russell 3000 small-cap index all hit all-time peaks. The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index ($INX) is within 1% of its all-time high price set in 2007.

And of course, on Monday, the Dow rose again for yet another new all-time high.

But . . .

I can think of four reasons why the "all-time high price" recorded last week doesn't mean what Wall Street and the headlines say it means.

Is that all we get?

First, while I think it's great (and I'm certainly not giving back any profits I've made lately) that prices of U.S. stocks have by and large returned to the levels of 2007 -- and even beyond -- I've got to ask "That's all? That's all we get from an unprecedented flood of central bank cash?"

Jim Jubak

Jim Jubak

The Federal Reserve's balance sheet now exceeds $3 trillion, up from $488 billion in January 2011. The European Central Bank's balance sheet hit what I think is likely to be a temporary peak of $4.2 trillion in June 2012, up from $2.98 trillion in June 2011. China has been printing money. Japan has been printing money. And this money poured into a global economy where growth was so slow and economic conditions so uncertain that much of this cash went into financial assets rather than into capital or consumer spending. What we got from this is a return to the stock market levels of 2007.

Second, U.S. stock prices are at new highs only if we forget about inflation. In other words, these are nominal rather than real highs. Adjusted for inflation, this peak on the Dow Jones Industrial Average is still 10% lower than at its 2007 peak. Adjusted for inflation, that 2007 peak wasn't actually a peak either; it was lower than the 2000 high. So far, what investors have -- if they adjust for inflation -- isn't a series of ever-higher peaks but of ever-lower highs.

To date, in fact, what we've got is a classic bear market pattern of lower highs. Maybe the 2013 rally can break that pattern, but we aren't there yet. From this perspective, there's a lot riding on this rally -- the difference in real terms of a continuation of the bear market that began in 2000 and a move onto either an actual bull market or at least a consolidation that might launch a new bull market.

But despite the yelling about new highs for U.S. stock prices, we aren't there yet.

Third, if you think calculating the inflation-adjusted price level of the Dow or the S&P takes a little luster off the current claims of an "all time high," you should see what happens to stock market prices when they're compared with those of other assets. If, for example, you measure the gain of the S&P 500 in terms of gold -- and not U.S. dollars -- the price of the S&P is down 53% from the 2007 high.

And, fourth, why all this focus on the prices? Sure, stock prices are an important component of gains for investors, but they're only a component. Over time, about 40% of the total return for the Dow Jones Industrial Average has been in the form of dividends.

If those dividends were reinvested, then dividends account for 50% of the total return on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. If you include the dividends from the Dow stocks in your calculations, then the Dow Jones industrials -- even adjusted for inflation -- hit a new high in February. (Besides the famous Dow Jones Industrial Average that business sections report so prominently, there's also a Dow Jones Industrial Average Total Return Index ($DJITR), which includes dividends from the Dow stocks. Chart the two against each other to see the difference that dividends make in total return.)

What's my point? I've got several, actually.

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