Kraft: You’ve been voted off the Dow island

Kraft Foods products. UnitedHealth replaced Kraft in the latest adjustment to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Blue Chips that split or wither get the axe.

The reality show “Survivor” asks one question. In the words of its host Jeff Probst, "What does it take to outwit, outplay and outlast all the others?" That’s the same question we could ask of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Thirty big companies make the list, but when they show weakness, they’re kicked off the island.

Sam Mattera, a vice president with the stock research site Benzinga.com, recalls that major corporate changes usually presage a departure from the Dow. "AIG…Citigroup got pulled out during the financial crisis, General Motors when it was facing bankruptcy," he says.

And there was a changing of the guard today. Out went Kraft Foods, in came UnitedHeath. Kraft had replaced AIG in 2008, when the financial crisis caused the insurance giant to implode and fall into government ownership. Now Kraft is splitting into two companies, and its spot on the Dow Jones Industrial Average is going to United Healthcare.

"Health care insurance is a big concern and a big issue for a lot of Americans," says David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee for the S&P Dow Jones Indices. "So if this index is supposed to tell us what’s going on in the stock market and the economy, it ought to include health care."

If the Dow is like "Survivor," Blitzer is kind of like the head of the tribal council for the Dow. Contestants -- er, make that companies -- lobby him all the time. Sometimes executives call him up demanding to know why their company has been left out of the Dow.

"We do get phone calls, get people who want to make sure we know absolutely all the good things about their company," he says wryly. When that happens, he asks the company to send him an annual report. But doesn't he already have an annual report? Yes, he says, but having someone from the company send one makes everyone feel like they accomplished something towards informing the committee.

Blitzer and his team keep a secret list of potential candidates for the Dow, and they don't tell companies whether they're in or out until 20 minutes after the information has been widely made public.

Of course, all reality shows are somewhat scripted, and many look for a "character arc" -- evidence that people can change over time. And, just as reality villains can turn into heroes, so can companies. Take AIG: As Kraft was leaving the Dow, AIG announced it had made a profit for the government. The folks at the S&P Dow Indices joked about bringing it back into its old spot. "Yes, there is redemption in the financial sphere," Blitzer says. "We kidded each other about taking AIG, but we decided it was a little too soon."

But not every company can win -- or even play this game. The Dow index is weighted by stock price. The companies that join the Dow must have roughly the same stock price as the ones they replace. That’s why some competitors, like Apple, aren’t even allowed on the island. No Dow stock comes close to Apple's current trading price of nearly $700 a share.

About the author

Heidi N. Moore is The Guardian's U.S. finance and economics editor. She was formerly the New York bureau chief and Wall Street correspondent for Marketplace.

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