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3 Dow Bellwethers Clear Their Paths to Greatness

By Alex Planes - Apr 14, 2013 at 12:30PM

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Learning from the market's past to understand its present.

On this day in economic and business history ...

Three of the Dow Jones Industrial Average's (^DJI 1.98%) most closely watched bellwethers enjoyed key victories over longtime foes on April 14, 1992, clearing the way for market dominance. One had been a member of the Dow for less than a year, and two others wouldn't join the index until later in the decade, but the events of that day had wide-ranging repercussions for two vitally important global industries.

Big labor loses big
On April 14, 1992, the same day its future Dow compatriot beat back Apple's (AAPL 4.01%) legal assault, Caterpillar (CAT 3.20%) gained a critical victory against the United Automobile Workers union. More than 12,000 workers stopped picketing Caterpillar's Peoria, Ill., plant, despite having called the company's offer "a mean-spirited proposal" up until the end of the strike. The five-month action was the first in a series of major union efforts against the heavy-equipment manufacturer, and the UAW's capitulation in the spring of 1992 set the tone for the strikes yet to come.

The New York Times writes of Caterpillar's bold (and boldly anti-union) move, which probably cowed union leaders into submission:

The company's threat to replace the 12,600 striking UAW members permanently if they failed to report to work by April 6 was widely seen as a new stage in the attack on unions by corporations. Never before had an industrial giant like Caterpillar tried to permanently replace thousands of union workers.

Caterpillar and the UAW clashed over the union's demand to have top employees earn $40,000 per year, a wage matching that promised to employees rival equipment maker Deere beginning in 1994. Caterpillar, on the other hand, claimed that the higher wages would damage its international competitiveness -- at the time, it was the second-largest industrial exporter in the country, with 59% of its products shipped overseas. The UAW didn't get its request, and the stage was set for a lengthier strike in 1994. By the time this grueling 17-month protest was over, Caterpillar had refocused its domestic manufacturing strategy around southern states with more favorable labor laws.

Today, Caterpillar is a truly global manufacturer, with nearly half of about 240 manufacturing plants located outside the United States. Its Peoria plant is still open, and Caterpillar still maintains significant manufacturing operations in Illinois, but the UAW's presence has been greatly diminished within the ranks of the company's employees. In early 2011, the UAW signed a six-year contract with Caterpillar that would cover fewer than 10,000 employees at plants in four states. Since Caterpillar maintained more than four times as many domestic employees at plants in more than half of the United States at that time, this had a muted impact on the company compared with the strikes of the 1990s.

Unlocking the genomic code
The Human Genome Project raced ahead of schedule to announce the sequencing of a complete human genome on April 14, 2003. Arriving barely more than two years after the publication of its full-sequence working draft, the project's completion was announced over two years ahead of schedule. The brisk pace put an exclamation point on a 13-year project that coincidentally reached its end the same year that humanity celebrated the 50-year anniversary of Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA's double helix. The project, considered one of humanity's most important and ambitious scientific undertakings, mapped out more than 99% of the human genome's 3 billion DNA letters to 99.99% accuracy.

A 2011 report from the Battelle Memorial Institute estimated that the $3.8 billion government investment in the Human Genome Project had produced $796 billion in economic benefits and supported more than 300,000 jobs in 2010 alone. However, that figure was not widely accepted within the scientific and economic communities because of the difficulty in measuring the true impact of such scientific efforts. Most believe that the ultimate benefits will be truly staggering but caution that objective analysis of the economic benefits may be virtually impossible. At the very least, humanity can celebrate the improvements in medical and pharmaceutical treatments that have resulted and will result in the future, as well as the thousands upon thousands of highly skilled jobs created to sequence, analyze, interpret, and manipulate the genome since the project's completion.

(AAPL 4.01%)

Apple had sought $5.5 billion in damages from the maker of Windows and one of its largest licensees over what it felt was infringement of the "look and feel" of its Macintosh operating system. Microsoft's Windows 2.0 and 3.0 and HP's NewWave (a graphical and productivity extension of Windows for HP machines) were purportedly not covered by a licensing agreement Apple and Microsoft had signed for the development of Windows 1.0 -- at least not in Apple's view. This proved to be a focal point of the case, and Apple's undoing.

Apple lawyers' insistence on using the phrase "look and feel" in pursuing its case was a major reason Judge Vaughn Walker threw the case out, as he noted that a suit based on the infringement of the overall Mac operating system's operational style was "a fundamental misunderstanding of the law." He also rejected the notion that the Windows license was no longer relevant, as simply pointing to similar elements in later versions of the operating system was not enough to build a case.

Of the 189 elements Apple claimed Microsoft had infringed from its Mac operating system, all but 10 were ultimately found to be covered under the Windows 1.0 agreement, and the other 10 were thrown out in the April 14 ruling. One of the few things left on the table for Apple to scrap for was the use of a trash-can image to signify deleting a file, hardly enough to give its legal team much cause for hope. Apple would pursue a narrower case for another two years but gained nothing in the end, as its appeals were all ultimately denied.

Apple's failure in this case would prove to be one of the lowest points in its operational history, and its loss of control over graphical operating-system standards significantly weakened its market position just as the market was truly beginning to blow up. In recent years, Apple has again sought out the protection of the courts over the look and feel of its designs. If history is any guide, these cases will do nothing to help it fend off competition this time, either.

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Stocks Mentioned

Dow Jones Industrial Average (Price Return) Stock Quote
Dow Jones Industrial Average (Price Return)
$31,880.24 (1.98%) $618.34
Apple Inc. Stock Quote
Apple Inc.
$143.11 (4.01%) $5.52
HP Inc. Stock Quote
HP Inc.
$35.06 (1.18%) $0.41
Caterpillar Inc. Stock Quote
Caterpillar Inc.
$204.15 (3.20%) $6.33
Microsoft Corporation Stock Quote
Microsoft Corporation
$260.65 (3.20%) $8.09

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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