Which Stocks Drive or Delay the Dow's All-Time Highs?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) is only a couple of days removed from setting fresh all-time highs. The market's most storied index has gained 18% year to date, and it sits just 1.6% below that recent record level.

It should come as no surprise that most of the Dow's 30 member stocks also trade near their all-time record highs. 3M (NYSE: MMM  ) comes close, with shares closing at 99.2% of its lifetime highs on Friday. That record was set less than two weeks ago and nearly eclipsed again last Friday. 3M shares have gained a market-beating 32% over the last year as market makers showed their appreciation for a fantastically diverse and stable business model amid global headwinds.

Running ahead of even 3M, UnitedHealth (NYSE: UNH  ) shares are setting brand-new record prices lately. If Obamacare is about to destroy the health insurance industry, UnitedHealth investors aren't buying that scary story at all. In fact, the stock isn't trading not only for high share prices, but also at historically enormous P/E ratios. And it's all supported by an impressive trend in revenue growth.

UNH Revenue TTM Chart

UNH Revenue TTM data by YCharts.

On the other side of the tracks, you'll find that the Dow's all-time-high success story isn't universal. Six of the 30 Dow tickers can be bought for less than 50% of their record prices, and a couple of the historical discounts are even more epic.

The casual Dow-observer might expect Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) to sit at the top of that unfortunate list. The megabank fell from grace in 2008 and 2009, like Icarus flying too close to...well, risky mortgage bets.

Longtime shareholders are still hurting, but this is no longer the most drastic multiyear haircut on the Dow. Bank of America has staged a fantastic turnaround lately. Share prices have nearly doubled in 12 months and tripled over a year and a half, and shares now trade at roughly 26% of Bank of America's all-time record price from before the 2008 crash. That's the second-worst historical plunge on the Dow, leaving plenty of room for improvement yet.

But that's just a gentle comb-over compared to Alcoa's (NYSE: AA  ) buzz cut.

The aluminum producer suffered the same 2008 meltdown as Bank of America as the bottom fell out from the global construction markets. But while the bank came back with a vengeance in recent months, Alcoa shares never really stopped falling.

As it turns out, the big banks had plenty of flexibility to adjust their filing business models and step up to meet stricter government regulations. But the construction-materials business is far more physical, less flexible, and more dependent on the macro trends behind its customers' expense budgets.

I can't find a major player in this industry that has kept pace with the Dow over the last five years. Alcoa just happens to be a below-average performer in this massively beaten-down sector. And now it's the smallest Dow member by far, counting by market caps.

All-time highs are not in the cards for Alcoa or Bank of America anytime soon.

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