What Stock Market Charts Don't Tell You

The charts can underrepresent total return for long-term investors

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When you first begin investing in stocks, you'll probably look at stock market charts to see how a business has performed over time. For those who use a buy-and-hold approach, charts are most often useless in all but a handful of cases. That's because the figures you are seeing in the charts almost always understate the total return you could have enjoyed if you'd held ownership throughout the period.

Depending on several factors, the difference between the actual total return and the one depicted can be quite large. Learn about the main reasons why this discrepancy exists.

Key Takeaways

  • For long-term investors, stock market charts don't tell the whole story.
  • You won't learn about the dividends a stock pays out from its performance chart.
  • Spin-offs can provide new stock with tax-free gains, but won't show up in a chart.
  • Asset location and expenses will influence your returns but aren't represented on a chart.
  • Charts may not show the full history of a business and its performance.

Charts Can Fail To Reflect Dividends and Other Distributions

Many businesses pay out part of their profits in the form of cash dividends. Great businesses are able to increase earnings faster than the rate of inflation. This can lead to rapid dividend growth

The dividend yield gives investors an idea of how significant a company's dividend payments are compared to the amount of money needed to buy a share.


Remember: Rapidly growing businesses often trade at higher price-to-earnings ratios than slower-growing ones. For growth companies that also pay dividends, the rapid growth in stock price will translate into lower dividend yields if the company does not increase its dividend to keep up with the increase in share price.

Let's look at the extreme example of Eastman Kodak. This was a photographic film and camera company. Its shareholders lost the money they'd invested in the stock when the company emerged from bankruptcy in 2013.

Now, let's say you had bought $100,000 of shares of Kodak roughly 25 years earlier. That was back when it was one of the most prestigious blue-chip stocks in the world. Your $100,000 would have turned into more than $425,000 over the years. That's despite the stock getting wiped out in the end.

Over the 25-year holding period, dividend payments exceeded the amount of the initial investment: $173,958 vs. $100,000.

Charts Don't Reflect Spin-Offs

One of the greatest perks of being a stock investor is receiving shares of a tax-free spin-off. A company will often give its existing shareholders stock in a division of the company. That's because the division no longer fits with the core mission of the enterprise; in that case, it would be best served on its own. A company may also do it to remove regulatory scrutiny that is focused on that division.

In rare instances, the new publicly-traded company goes on to be more successful than the company that spun it off. At the very least, a spin-off gives you shares in a new company. And most often, you won't incur taxable capital gains.

Let's go back to the Kodak example. With your initial $100,000 investment, you would have received $203,018 in Eastman Chemical shares when Kodak spun off its chemical business in 1994. Those spun-off shares also produced $47,224 in dividends of their own. None of that money shows up in most charts beyond perhaps a pro-rata deduction of the historical cost at the time of separation. This means all subsequent performance is treated as if it had never happened.

Another prime example is Yum! Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut. It was spun off by PepsiCo in 1997. A stock market chart might make PepsiCo appear as if it has lagged behind Coca-Cola over the past few decades. But if you factor in the Yum! performance post-spin-off, the two soft drink giants are almost neck and neck.

Charts Don't Show Taxes, Inflation, or Deflation

Taxes matter. The exact same investment, held for the exact same length of time, can result in very different net worth changes It depends on the asset placement you use. Ideally, you'd opt for the twin combination of a 401(k) and a Roth IRA. Or, at the very least, you'd arrange your affairs to take advantage of the stepped-up basis loophole. That way, your heirs could avoid paying taxes on your deferred tax liabilities. 

Likewise, stock market charts won't indicate the tax offset you'd receive by selling one position at a loss to shield the gains from another holding.

Inflation and deflation are also sorely missing from most visual representations of securities performance. Purchasing power matters. There are times, such as during the 1929 crash, when a decrease in dollars from stock losses is actually a smaller decrease in purchasing power; that's because the cost of everything else also collapsed. This could result in an offset to your wealth destruction.

In other words, what if the value of your portfolio falls by 50%, but the price of everything else falls by 70%? Your economic situation would be different than it might seem at first glance.

There have been times when a slight drop in the dollar value of an asset actually led to making money in real terms. Conversely, there have been periods during which stock prices rose but the dollar depreciated much more quickly. In these cases, there is no real meaningful change for the shareholder.


Over long stretches of time, stocks, in the aggregate, have always been successfully able to compensate for inflation. This is despite occasional periods to the contrary in the short term. This has been shown by research over the past few generations.

Charts Leave Out Your Costs

When it comes to growing your family's fortune, costs matter. Every penny you pay in expenses is a penny you don't have that could be making compound interest. Let's say that, before the rise of online trading, you paid a broker $100 to execute a stock trade. In that case, your costs were very high compared with the value of your assets.

The differences in the efficiency of stock purchases can't appear in stock charts. But they're still of great importance.

Charts May Not Reflect a Business's Full History

Let's say you admire the late Dave Thomas of Wendy's. You're curious how a stockholder in the original IPO of the restaurant chain would be faring today. You can't easily do that; that's because Wendy's was acquired by Triarc Companies in 2008. Triarc was the publicly traded parent company of Arby's, with the stock symbol TRY.

After the merger and a series of name changes and divestments, Wendy's is now once again its own publicly-traded company. And it has a different stock symbol (WEN). The trading history of the enterprise Mr. Thomas built and expanded hasn't actually been the simple picture you see in a continuous, decades-long chart.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What can you learn from stock charts?

Stock charts still provide useful information about a stock, even if you plan to hold a particular stock for a long time. You can see moving averages, which can tell you about a stock's price momentum. Trading volume will show you whether larger institutional investors are finding a stock worth buying or selling. And historical charts can give you context as you make investing decisions.

What charts should long-term investors look at?

Long-term, buy-and-hold investors often use fundamental analysis when evaluating a stock for purchase. Some ratios that you should look at include earnings per share, price-to-earnings, and projected earnings growth. These will give you an idea of how the company's value compares to its price now and will help as you estimate the future value as well.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The University of Northwestern Ohio. "Exploring the Kodak Bankruptcy."

  2. Eastman. "Tax Consequences of Eastman Chemical Company Spin-Off From Eastman Kodak Company."

  3. Pepsico. "October 8, 1997, To the Stockholders of PepsiCo, Inc. Common Stock."

  4. Yahoo Finance. "PepsiCo, Inc. (PEP)."

  5. Yahoo Finance. "Yum! Brands, Inc. (YUM)."

  6. Yahoo Finance. "The Coca-Cola Company (KO)."

  7. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Triarc and Wendy's Sign Definitive Merger Agreement."

  8. Wendy's. "The Wendy's Story."

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