Major Indices Explained

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An Introduction to U.S. Stock Market Indexes

Stock market indexes around the world are powerful indicators for global and country-specific economies. In the United States the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, and Nasdaq Composite are the three most broadly followed indexes by both the media and investors. In addition to these three indexes there are approximately 5,000 others that make up the U.S. equity market.

With so many indexes, the U.S. market has a wide range of methodologies and categorizations that can serve a broad range of purposes. The media most often reports on the direction of the top three indexes regularly throughout the day with key news items serving as contributors and detractors. Investment managers use indexes as benchmarks for performance reporting. Meanwhile, investors of all types use indexes as performance proxies and allocation guides. Indexes also form the basis for passive index investing often done primarily through exchange-traded funds that track indexes specifically.

Overall, an understanding of how market indexes are constructed and utilized can help to add meaning and clarity for a wide variety of investing avenues. Below we elaborate on the three most followed U.S. indexes, the Wilshire 5000 which includes all the stocks across the entire U.S. stock market, and a roundup of some of the other most notable indexes.

Key Takeaways

  • There are approximately 5,000 U.S. indexes.
  • The three most widely followed indexes in the U.S. are the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, and Nasdaq Composite.
  • The Wilshire 5000 includes all the stocks from the U.S. stock market.
  • Indexes can be constructed in a wide variety of ways but they are commonly identified generally by capitalization and sector segregation.

Index

The S&P 500

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (known commonly as the S&P 500) is an index with 500 of the top companies in the U.S. Stocks are chosen for the index primarily by capitalization but the constituent committee also considers other factors including liquidity, public float, sector classification, financial viability, and trading history. The S&P 500 Index represents approximately 80% of the total value of the U.S. stock market. In general, the S&P 500 Index gives a good indication of movement in the U.S. market as a whole.

Indexes are usually market weighted or price weighted. The S&P 500 Index is a market weighted index (also referred to as capitalization weighted). Therefore, every stock in the index is represented in proportion to its total market capitalization. In other words, if the total market value of all 500 companies in the S&P 500 drops by 10%, the value of the index also drops by 10%.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) is one of the oldest, most well-known, and most frequently used indexes in the world. It includes the stocks of 30 of the largest and most influential companies in the United States. The DJIA is a price-weighted index. It was originally computed by totaling the per-share price of the stocks of each company in the index and dividing this sum by the number of companies. Unfortunately, the index is no longer this simple to calculate. Over the years, stock splits, spin-offs, and other events have resulted in changes in the divisor (a numerical value computed by Dow Jones used to calculate the level of the DJIA) making it a very small number (less than 0.2).

The DJIA represents about a quarter of the value of the entire U.S. stock market, but a percent change in the Dow should not be interpreted as a definite indication that the entire market has dropped by the same percent. This is because of the Dow’s price-weighted function. The basic problem is that a $1 change in the price of a $120 stock in the index will have a greater effect on the DJIA than a $1 change in the price of a $20 stock, although the higher-priced stock may have changed by only 0.8% and the other by 5%.

A change in the Dow represents changes in investors’ expectations of the earnings and risks of the large companies included in the index. Because the general attitude toward large-cap stocks often differs from the attitude toward small-cap stocks, international stocks, or technology stocks, the Dow should not be used to represent sentiment in other areas of the marketplace. In general, the Dow is known for its listing of the U.S. markets best blue-chip companies with regularly consistent dividends. Therefore, while not necessarily a representation of the broad market, it can be a representation of the blue-chip, dividend-value market.

The Nasdaq Composite Index

Most investors know that the Nasdaq is the exchange on which technology stocks are traded. The Nasdaq Composite Index is a market-capitalization-weighted index of all the stocks traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange. This index includes some companies that are not based in the United States.

Known for being heavily tech weighted, this index includes several subsectors across the tech market including software, biotech, semiconductors, and more. Although this index is known for its large portion of technology stocks, it does include some securities from other industries as well. Investors will also find securities from a variety of sectors as well, including financials, industrials, insurance, and transportation stocks, among others. The Nasdaq Composite includes large and small firms, but unlike the Dow and the S&P 500, it also includes many speculative companies with small market capitalizations. Consequently, its movement generally indicates the performance of the technology industry as well as investors’ attitudes toward more speculative stocks.

The Wilshire 5000

The Wilshire 5000 is sometimes called the “total stock market index” or “total market index” because it includes all of the publicly traded companies with headquarters in the United States that have readily available price data. Finalized in 1974, this index represents the entire U.S. stock market and its movement aggregately. Although it is a very comprehensive measure of the entire U.S. market, the Wilshire 5000 is referred to less often than the more popular S&P 500 Index.

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A Roundup of Other U.S. Indexes

Generally, there are a few ways to look at indexes broadly. Capitalization is often key, with indexes falling into either large-, mid-, or small-cap buckets. The S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average are two of the top large-cap indexes, but others include the S&P 100, the Dow Jones U.S. Large-Cap Total Stock Market Index, the MSCI USA Large-Cap Index, and the Russell 1000. Notable mid-cap indexes include the S&P Mid-Cap 400, the Russell Midcap, and the Wilshire US Mid-Cap Index. In small-caps, the Russell 2000 is an index of the 2,000 smallest stocks from the Russell 3000. Other popular small-cap indexes include the S&P 600, the Dow Jones Small-Cap Growth Total Stock Market Index, and the Dow Jones Small-Cap Value Total Stock Market Index.

Investors also commonly look to sectors with Standard & Poor’s leading in this realm of the market. Standard & Poor’s manages: the S&P Communication Services Select Sector, S&P Consumer Discretionary Select Sector, S&P Consumer Staples Select Sector, S&P Energy Select Sector, S&P Financial Select Sector, S&P Health Care Select Sector, S&P Industrial Select Sector, S&P Materials Select Sector, S&P Real Estate Select Sector, S&P Technology Select Sector, and the S&P Utilities Select Sector. These indexes represent the S&P 500’s comprehensive sector segregations.

The growth of smart beta index investing has also helped to increase the number of indexes in the market. Smart beta indexes are passive indexes that are built using certain characteristic or fundamental screens that help to improve the quality of index constitution. Advisors Asset Management (AAM) has three smart beta index funds in the market that largely encompass the entire global market for dividend and value investing. AAM’s smart beta index funds include the AAM S&P 500 High Dividend Value ETF (SPDV), the AAM S&P Developed Markets High Dividend Value ETF (DMDV), and the AAM S&P Emerging Markets High Dividend Value ETF (EEMD).

Major Indices

Major US Stock Indices

Major International Stock Indices

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Writing Puts to Purchase Stocks

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Major Indices

Definition:
A put option is an option contract in which the holder (buyer) has the right (but not the obligation) to sell a specified quantity of a security at a specified price (strike price) within a fixed period of time (until its expiration).

For the writer (seller) of a put option, it represents an obligation to buy the underlying security at the strike price if the option is exercised. The put option writer is paid a premium for taking on the risk associated with the obligation.

For stock options, each contract covers 100 shares.

Buying Put Options

Put buying is the simplest way to trade put options. When the options trader is bearish on particular security, he can purchase put options to profit from a slide in asset price. The price of the asset must move significantly below the strike price of the put options before the option expiration date for this strategy to be profitable.

A Simplified Example

Suppose the stock of XYZ company is trading at $40. A put option contract with a strike price of $40 expiring in a month’s time is being priced at $2. You strongly believe that XYZ stock will drop sharply in the coming weeks after their earnings report. So you paid $200 to purchase a single $40 XYZ put option covering 100 shares.

Say you were spot on and the price of XYZ stock plunges to $30 after the company reported weak earnings and lowered its earnings guidance for the next quarter. With this crash in the underlying stock price, your put buying strategy will result in a profit of $800.

Let’s take a look at how we obtain this figure.

If you were to exercise your put option after earnings, you invoke your right to sell 100 shares of XYZ stock at $40 each. Although you don’t own any share of XYZ company at this time, you can easily go to the open market to buy 100 shares at only $30 a share and sell them immediately for $40 per share. This gives you a profit of $10 per share. Since each put option contract covers 100 shares, the total amount you will receive from the exercise is $1000. As you had paid $200 to purchase this put option, your net profit for the entire trade is $800.

This strategy of trading put option is known as the long put strategy. See our long put strategy article for a more detailed explanation as well as formulae for calculating maximum profit, maximum loss and breakeven points.

Protective Puts

Investors also buy put options when they wish to protect an existing long stock position. Put options employed in this manner are also known as protective puts. Entire portfolio of stocks can also be protected using index puts.

Selling Put Options

Instead of purchasing put options, one can also sell (write) them for a profit. Put option writers, also known as sellers, sell put options with the hope that they expire worthless so that they can pocket the premiums. Selling puts, or put writing, involves more risk but can be profitable if done properly.

Covered Puts

The written put option is covered if the put option writer is also short the obligated quantity of the underlying security. The covered put writing strategy is employed when the investor is bearish on the underlying.

Naked Puts

The short put is naked if the put option writer did not short the obligated quantity of the underlying security when the put option is sold. The naked put writing strategy is used when the investor is bullish on the underlying.

For the patient investor who is bullish on a particular company for the long haul, writing naked puts can also be a great strategy to acquire stocks at a discount.

Put Spreads

A put spread is an options strategy in which equal number of put option contracts are bought and sold simultaneously on the same underlying security but with different strike prices and/or expiration dates. Put spreads limit the option trader’s maximum loss at the expense of capping his potential profit at the same time.

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If you are very bullish on a particular stock for the long term and is looking to purchase the stock but feels that it is slightly overvalued at the moment, then you may want to consider writing put options on the stock as a means to acquire it at a discount. [Read on. ]

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Cash dividends issued by stocks have big impact on their option prices. This is because the underlying stock price is expected to drop by the dividend amount on the ex-dividend date. [Read on. ]

Bull Call Spread: An Alternative to the Covered Call

As an alternative to writing covered calls, one can enter a bull call spread for a similar profit potential but with significantly less capital requirement. In place of holding the underlying stock in the covered call strategy, the alternative. [Read on. ]

Dividend Capture using Covered Calls

Some stocks pay generous dividends every quarter. You qualify for the dividend if you are holding on the shares before the ex-dividend date. [Read on. ]

Leverage using Calls, Not Margin Calls

To achieve higher returns in the stock market, besides doing more homework on the companies you wish to buy, it is often necessary to take on higher risk. A most common way to do that is to buy stocks on margin. [Read on. ]

Day Trading using Options

Day trading options can be a successful, profitable strategy but there are a couple of things you need to know before you use start using options for day trading. [Read on. ]

What is the Put Call Ratio and How to Use It

Learn about the put call ratio, the way it is derived and how it can be used as a contrarian indicator. [Read on. ]

Understanding Put-Call Parity

Put-call parity is an important principle in options pricing first identified by Hans Stoll in his paper, The Relation Between Put and Call Prices, in 1969. It states that the premium of a call option implies a certain fair price for the corresponding put option having the same strike price and expiration date, and vice versa. [Read on. ]

Understanding the Greeks

In options trading, you may notice the use of certain greek alphabets like delta or gamma when describing risks associated with various positions. They are known as “the greeks”. [Read on. ]

Valuing Common Stock using Discounted Cash Flow Analysis

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