Category: Investment

The Dow, S&P 500, and Their Relevance – Part 3

In part 1 and part 2 of this series we talked about the Dow Jones and S&P 500 indexes.  In this final part of the series we will look at what is relevant to your portfolio and talk about what to look at when comparing your portfolio to a benchmark.

Understanding What You Should be Watching

If you want to follow a benchmark that is relevant to your portfolio you will first need to understand the makeup of your particular portfolio.  A diversified portfolio may include both US and international securities.  Keep digging and you may find that you have large, mid and small size companies.  Dig a little further and you will see international companies that are based in both developed and emerging market economies. If you are an aggressive investor you may only hold equities but as you become more conservative you may introduce fixed income and cash into your portfolio.

Each of these asset classes; large, mid and, small capitalization US equities, international developed and emerging market economy equities, fixed income, and cash, all have their own risk and return profile and, therefore, they are all benchmarked to their own indexes.

A benchmark that reflects the behavior of your portfolio would need to be built to mimic your holdings.  As an example, if your portfolio has 50% large US stocks and 50% US bonds you may look at a blended index of the S&P 500 (US large stocks) and the US aggregate bond index (representing most traded US bonds).  This is a blended index because you are combining existing indexes to create your own blended benchmark.

Calculating the Benchmark Return

When calculating the return of this blended index, you simply find the return of each index for a given time period and then weigh that return to the allocation in the portfolio.  For example, if the S&P 500 had a 10% rate of return over a given period and the Aggregate bond index had a 5% return over the same time period, your blended index would have a return of 7.5%.

S&P 500 – 10% return x 50% allocation = 5%

Aggregate Bond Index – 5% return x 50% allocation = 2.5%.

Blended Index – 5% + 2.5% = 7.5%

If your portfolio is half US stocks and half US bonds you would expect your portfolio to be close to the 7.5% rate of return of the blended benchmark. Anything above that and you are outperforming your benchmark and anything below that you are underperforming your benchmark. Withdraws from and contributions to the account, selling and buying securities, and allowing your allocation to drift away from the 50/50 mix, along with other factors, can affect your portfolios performance.

Benchmarking is Only Part of the Story

Benchmarking your portfolio is no doubt a useful exercise, but benchmarking correctly can be a tall order.  While it is important to know how your portfolio is performing relative to an expectation, it should not be the sole metric for measuring your success in the market.

When looking at your portfolio return take a step back and remind yourself of why you are invested.  What is your risk tolerance? What volatility are you comfortable with?  Is income or growth the primary objective?  What is my time horizon? Focusing only on return in your portfolio can cause you to lose sight of the primary objectives of your portfolio and could cause you to make mistakes.

Take the time to understand what the benchmarks you are looking at represent and which benchmarks are appropriate for you to measure against.  Then take inventory of why you are invested in the first place.  These steps will help you decide what is relevant information and what is noise.

The Dow, S&P 500, and Their Relevance – Part 2

The S&P 500

In our last post we briefly discussed the Dow, what it tracks, some of the criteria for allowing stocks in, and how it is calculated.  In today’s post we will discuss the S&P 500 and answer some of the same questions as in the Dow post.

The Standard and Poor’s 500, “S&P 500,” is another well-known and highly followed index* in the United States.  The S&P 500 differs from the Dow in several ways. First, the S&P 500 is an index made up of 505 stocks issued by 500 large U.S. companies.  These stocks are included in the index for a variety of reasons, including market cap (value), liquidity, and the industry they represent.  Second, it is a market value index which gives more weight to the largest stocks in the index when calculating return vs the price-weighted average that the Dow uses.

Because of these two factors, the S&P 500 is considered a much more reliable measure of the U.S. market.  Its limitations come in the fact that all the stocks that are tracked are “Large Cap” stocks, meaning they have a market value (all shares outstanding multiplied by the current stock price) of at least $6.1 billion dollars.  While that is a large percentage of the overall U.S. market it does leave many small and mid-size companies out of the index.

Our next post will discuss the final question. Are these indexes relevant to me and my portfolio?

*An index is not managed and cannot be invested into directly.

The Dow, S&P 500, and Their Relevance – Part 1

In the 21st century access to information is more readily available than ever before.  When it comes to the “markets” the Dow and the S&P 500 seem to be the most seen, talked about, and followed indexes in the United States.  But very few people know what they are looking at or stop to ask if what they are looking at is relevant to their situation.

So, what is the Dow and what is the S&P 500 and are they relevant to my portfolio? Over the course of the next three posts I will give a brief explanation of the two indexes and then finish up with the, “are they relevant to me” question.

Each of these indicators, the Dow and the S&P 500, is an index*.  The purpose of the index is to give a general idea of the movement of “the market” over a given period.   They are also often used either on their own or paired with other indexes to create a benchmark for an investor to measure their portfolio against.

“The Dow”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is arguably the most popular and well known of the indexes in the market place.  It is made up of 30 large, well-known US stocks that are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.  The Dow was created in 1896 by Charles Dow and was originally 12 US corporations.  It was expanded to 20 corporations in 1916 and then moved to the current count of 30 in 1928.  It is owned and maintained by the Wall Street Journal. The 30 stocks that compose the Dow must satisfy a list of criteria to be added and included in the index.  If a stock that is in the Dow does not meet one of the criteria, over time it may be removed and replaced by another stock.

Though the Dow is popular among investors and the media, it has two weaknesses when it comes to using it as a benchmark for measuring your portfolio.  One, the way its return is calculated.  The Dow uses a price-weighted average for calculating its return which gives more importance to a stock’s price rather than its actual size in the portfolio.  Two, the Dow only represents 30 stocks in the US market which is a very small portion 4300 stocks that are traded on the US markets.

With the price weighted calculation and a small number of stocks, the Dow can vary widely day to day if one of its stocks has a volatile day.  This is why you may notice the variance in the Dow’s daily results compared the results of the other indexes or even your own portfolio.

In the next post I will discuss the S&P 500, looking at its pros and cons in the return calculation and the makeup of the index.  We will finish up the following week with the question of relevance as a portfolio benchmark.


*An index is not managed and cannot be invested into directly.

5 Long Term Investment Building Blocks

It is all too easy to lose your cool when the markets are rising or falling. When markets are rising we wonder if it can last forever, often times believing that it will go bad soon. When it is falling, it feels like things will never turn around and we worry about how much more it could drop.  Markets are volatile, and volatility on the up or down side can be scary.  If you can’t stay calm and make rational investment decisions in the face of this volatility you will almost certainly see the value of your investments suffer.  Legendary investor Shelby Davis once said, “you make most of your money in a bear (down) market, you just don’t realize it at the time”.  Because volatile markets are ripe with opportunity to either lose or make money it is important to have a strategy in place ahead of time, so you can make rational decisions while others around you are panicking.

Below are five fundamental blocks that you can build your investment philosophy on to help prepare you for the next round of volatility in the markets.

  1. Plan to live a long time – According to the Center for Disease Control a 65 year-old woman has a 20.3 year life expectancy, and a 65 year-old man has a 17.7 year life expectancy. This information might cause you some confusion if you’ve read that the average life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 81.1 for women and 76.1 for men. But these life expectancies are from birth — they don’t apply to someone who’s already reached age 65. If you are healthy and 65, don’t talk yourself into moving all your money into cash or CD’s.  If you are counting on income from these investments now and into your future, you will want to take some level of risk to make sure you don’t run out of money. Inflation is a big threat to your money and it is not easy to see it coming.  Plan for it.
  2. Diversification works – The old saying goes, “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket”.  This is fine for most things but when investing, the saying should probably be more like, “don’t just own eggs”. No one knows what the future for markets will hold. Even when one sector does well others can suffer, so own multiple classes of investments and multiple investments.  This will give you a more consistent return and help to reduce the volatility of the general market.  Although it is tempting to buy into whatever did well last year, don’t do it.  This is the equivalent of driving down the road looking through your rear-view mirror. Do this and you might find yourself in the ditch at the side of the road.
  3. Don’t follow the crowd – The crowd is often terrible at investing. Don’t get caught up in the hype of a stock or particular sector.  The average investor tends to buy high, sell low, and make decisions about their investing based on their gut reaction to a single piece of news.  We all know that is an easy way to lose money in the market, but we often forget that making money in the markets can be just as simple. Warren Buffet has said that he only invests in companies that he is comfortable holding for 30 years.  Buy investments that you believe will still be successful over the long term because of their fundamentals and don’t make decisions based on fear, greed, or hype.
  4. Block out the noise – 24-hour news and the internet are the wrong places to spend your time if you are trying to make good investment decisions. Don’t get me wrong, they are a wealth of knowledge and can add lots of value to your decision-making process but for most people, they are just NOISE. By the way, that is what they are designed to be, they are designed to catch your attention, keep your attention, and move you to action.  That is how their paying customers, advertisers, make money. When things look bad and you feel yourself getting nervous, turn it off!
  5. It’s about time IN the market, not TIMING the market –  We all want to make money in the market without losing any money in the market. That is a good strategy, for a fortune teller, but you’re not one.  If you were you wouldn’t be reading my blog on investing strategies. The cost of missing days in the market can be enormous and almost impossible to make back up.  If you missed the 25 best trading days (out of 11620) from 1970 to 2015 your return dropped from 1,910% to 371%. Ouch… Market investors should not be focused on day to day returns but instead on their long-term investment goals.  Stay invested in bad times or you might just miss out on the good times.