All 30 stocks in the Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) are well-known companies that are leaders in their respective fields. But some Dow stocks are more popular than others, especially among Wall Street's trading elite. The question you have to answer is whether those popular stocks are the ones you ought to buy, or whether you ought to look past the in-crowd to get better performance elsewhere.
To answer that question, let's take a look at the six most heavily traded stocks in the Dow and see how those popular stocks have performed over the past five years. That look should give us some hints about whether popularity among traders translates into smart long-term investments.
Telecom leads the list
At the top of the volume-leader list are AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon. AT&T trades almost 70 million shares on a typical day, while Verizon is lower at 47 million. Even when you take Verizon's higher share price into account, AT&T still tops its rival on a dollar-volume basis.
Clearly, part of the popularity of telecoms recently has come from Verizon's blockbuster $130 billion deal to take full control of its Verizon Wireless business. Verizon investors believe that retaining all of the profits of that lucrative division is the best opportunity for further growth, with the hope that having complete power to dictate its future direction will help it top AT&T. For AT&T, on the other hand, the move has investors speculating about whether it will seek a partner or acquisition target of its own to try to bolster its own growth prospects.
Over the past five years, Verizon's total cumulative returns have almost doubled AT&T's, with Verizon more than doubling investors' money over the time frame. AT&T's roughly 60% total return is close to the Dow's overall return since late 2008.
Tech still commands respect
Of the remaining four spots among the top six, tech stocks take all but one. Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) both have daily share volumes in the 33 million to 34 million range, while Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) is well back at 22.6 million. Microsoft finishes well ahead of its two rivals in terms of dollar volume, as both Cisco and Intel have significantly lower share prices than Microsoft.
In many ways, all three of these companies face big challenges. For Cisco, finding the right mix of business between its enterprise and government sectors is essential in order to produce greater revenue growth. Microsoft is going through a leadership crisis, as Steve Ballmer's decision to step down as CEO and calls for Bill Gates to vacate the chairman role raise broader issues about whether Microsoft can find a strategic vision that will take full advantage of its many resources. Intel, meanwhile, is struggling to catch up on the mobile bandwagon, with new systems and chip architectures designed to help target underserved and likely lucrative areas of the market. Those struggles are a big part of why all three have put in lackluster performance, with Cisco trailing the group with just a 15% total return since 2008.
Lighting up your life
Finally, General Electric (NYSE:GE) comes in at No. 4 on the list, with 33.3 million shares trading daily. The stock hasn't done all that well since 2008, returning 35% as it was among the hardest hit on this list during the financial crisis and therefore had more ground to recover.
Arguably, though, GE has done the best job of identifying new growth opportunities. Returning to its roots and building up a big presence in energy, taking advantage of both its early mover status in the renewable energy industry to pushing harder more recently into the oil and gas services and infrastructure segment. Its most recent $600 million contract to help build a huge liquefied-natural-gas project in Russia is only the latest sign of the demand that GE is benefiting from, and you can expect further deals like it in the future.
Popularity isn't everything
As you can see, just because stocks have high volume doesn't mean they're good performers. Sometimes, you have to look beyond the most popular stocks to find the top returns.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool recommends Cisco Systems and Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company, Intel, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.