This is part 1 of a 2 part series.
Whether you are using market indexes as benchmarks to track the potential performance and risk of a given investment or you are engaged in index investing, indexes have something to offer every investor.
Thoughtful investors can gain significant insight on the market’s behavior by studying index values and understanding what the numerical changes in indexes might represent. To help give you the context for judging index performance, it helps to first know what goes into the numbers reported by common market indicators.
What Is an Index, Really?
An index is a select group of investments whose collective performance can be taken to represent a market as a whole, or at least a clearly defined subset of that market. While some indexes may be recalculated once a day or less, indexes representing large, liquid and active markets (such as the US stock market) are typically recalculated continuously during trading periods to reflect up-to-the-moment pricing data and to indicate the direction and magnitude of the market’s price sentiments.
Of course, major US equity indexes are not simply the sums of the individual prices for the investments they represent. Rather, indexes such as the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average are statistical models of the universes they were created to mirror. They take the latest prices and adjust them to better reflect long-term changes in financial markets, the constituent companies and the economy.
The numerical values of common indexes do not directly convey either the actual daily prices or percentage changes of their constituents, and when viewed as isolated points of data, major indexes typically provide little or no actionable significance. Rather, index values are intended to be viewed in a series so they can provide time lines that can chart relative performance from a consistent foundation. An index value today can be compared with its value days, years or even decades in the past to give a meaningful estimate of how the market might have changed over that time.
The components for each index are chosen according to the stated rules and policies of that index. Moreover, each index’s value is calculated using its own proprietary formula. As a result, even though two or more indexes may include the same company in their statistics, any particular market price change for that company is likely to have different effects on each index.
Distinguishing Among Different Indexes
The most commonly cited stock indexes in the United States—benchmarks such as the S&P 500, the Dow, the Morgan Stanley Capital International’s EAFE and Russell Investment’s Russell 2000—are actually parts of large index families. Some indexes in those families focus on specific areas of the market, such as large, midsized or small companies. Others specialize in sectors or investing styles such as growth and value. Each index has its own unique philosophy and methodology you should consider. Here are overviews of some of the key factors you can use to compare them:
Investment indexes are complex devices that can be invaluable tools when used properly, or hazardous when used inappropriately. And while you cannot invest directly in any index, you can find investments that mirror the performance of a specified index. Many investors find these investments ideal for certain purposes. I can help you get a better understanding of indexes and also find suitable index-based investments as appropriate to your particular needs. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.
Michael Caplan is a Financial Advisor and Associate Vice President with the Global Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Denver. He can be reached at Michael.Caplan@morganstanley.comor (303) 595-2094.
The information contained in this article is not a solicitation to purchase or sell investments. Any information presented is general in nature and not intended to provide individually tailored investment advice. The strategies and/or investments referenced may not be suitable for all investors as the appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor's individual circumstances and objectives. Investing involves risks and there is always the potential of losing money when you invest. The views expressed herein are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, Member SIPC, or its affiliates. Morgan Stanley Wealth Management LLC. Member SIPC.
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