Unlike the blue-chip heavy Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) or the tech-laden NASDAQ, the S&P 500 is often considered a proxy for the economy in the United States since it's a broad index spanning every stock sector and industry.
In this article, you'll learn how to invest in the S&P 500, who determines its constitution and why it is considered the best benchmark for the overall U.S. economy.
A Brief History of the S&P 500
Stock indices have existed for over a hundred years, but the S&P 500 index is relatively new compared to the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) or Dow Jones Transportation Average (DJT). Moreover, the older Dow Jones indices contain only a handful of companies and are often considered inadequate when used as a proxy for the overall economy.
Iterations of the S&P 500 have existed since the 1920s, but today's version came onto the scene in 1957. Christened the S&P 500 Composite Index, it contained not 30 companies like the DJIA but 500 companies to better represent the overall economy. The stocks in the index are also adjusted more frequently, as reconstitutions occur quarterly. Note that the index is the 500 largest U.S.-based companies, not 500 stocks — more on that later.
Additionally, the S&P 500 is weighted based on a company's market cap, not the stock price like the Dow. Market cap weighting is usually the better methodology since company market caps are usually more stable than stock prices. At the end of 2022, the total value of S&P 500 stocks tallied nearly $34 trillion.
Why is the S&P 500 Index Important?
The S&P 500, often called the "benchmark index," forms a baseline to which most institutional investors and fund managers compare. And while not every major U.S. corporation is included, the S&P 500 is the closest representation of the American economy that markets have produced. It's broad and features companies from all tock sectors and regions in the U.S.
Not only is the S&P 500 the market's best proxy for the economy, and one of the easiest indices to invest in through various funds and derivatives. Index funds tracking the S&P are some of the lowest-cost funds on the market and have ample liquidity for more frequent traders. Additionally, most American retirement holdings reside in vehicles based on some version of the S&P 500 index.
Requirements for a Company to be Listed on the S&P 500
Unlike most major stock indices, the S&P 500 is actively managed. Once a quarter, a committee meets to update any additions and removals to the index, along with any changes in the requirements for admission. For example, the committee met in June 2021 to raise the market cap threshold for acceptance. Here's what a company must have for S&P 500 inclusion:
- Minimum market cap of $13.1 billion
- Monthly trading volume of 250,000 for at least six most recent months
- Must be headquartered in the United States
- Must be publicly traded on a major U.S. stock exchange like NYSE or NASDAQ
- Must maintain an average share price of at least 75 cents
Additionally, securities like limited partnerships, OTC stocks, mutual funds or ETFs, preferred stock and equity warrants are automatically banned from the index.
Example of an S&P 500 Stock
Since the S&P 500 is a market-cap-weighted index, the biggest companies have the most pull on the overall direction. So if you want to see the largest components, just look at the mega-cap US stocks that comprise the basis of so many portfolios: Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL), Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT), Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Amazon Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN).
As mentioned above, the S&P 500 is the 500 largest companies, not the 500 largest stocks. The S&P 500 usually has more than 500 stocks in the fold at a given time. In addition, weighted by market cap, companies with multiple share classes like Alphabet, News Corp. (NASDAQ: NWS), Fox Corp. (NASDAQ: FOX) and formerly Under Armour Inc. (NYSE: UAA) will have both stocks listed in the index, not just one. As of this writing, the S&P 500 has 503 stocks in the index.
The new constituent of the S&P 500 is Fair Isaac Corp. (NYSE: FICO), which replaced Lumen Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LUMN) when the latter's market cap fell below the threshold for inclusion. If you've ever applied for a credit card or mortgage, you're likely familiar with Fair Isaac and its FICO scores. So here's a deeper look at the anatomy of the newest S&P 500 company.
Fair Issac has a market cap of just under $19 billion, which puts it on the lower end of the index in terms of weight despite its high share price. The company doesn't pay a dividend, but over 200,000 shares are traded daily on average, and analysts rate the company a "moderate buy" in aggregate.
One of the reasons Fair Isaac was considered for inclusion is the performance of the stock over the last 12 months, which raised the company's market cap over the eligibility threshold. A quick look at the FICO stock chart shows that while many S&P 500 companies floundered in 2022, Fair Isaac stock jumped more than 90%.
What causes a meteoric stock price increase? Many things can increase a stock's price, but the usual reason is quality earnings, and FICO's earning reports have fit that description lately. Investors also expect these earnings numbers to increase in 2023 and 2024. In their latest report, FICO totaled $3.34 in earnings per share (EPS), and 2024 projections have that figure rising to $5.50 per share.
What is an S&P 500 Index Fund?
How can you buy S&P 500 exposure? One of the most efficient ways is through index funds. Index funds are passively-managed baskets of securities, like mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). But unlike active funds that hire managers to select stocks, index funds attempt to mimic the performance of a basket of stocks in an existing index, like the S&P 500 or Russell 2000.
One of the primary benefits of an S&P 500 index fund is the affordability offered to investors. Both mutual funds and ETFs that track the S&P 500 carry expense ratios of just a few basis points, such as the Fidelity 500 Index Mutual Fund (FXAIX, 0.015% expense rate) and the Schwab S&P 500 Index Fund (SWPPX, 0.02% expense rate).
The first ETF ever brought to market is the SDPR S&P 500 ETF Trust (NYSE: SPY), created in 1993 and currently closing in on $400 billion in assets under management. SPY is one of the most popular assets on stock exchanges, and it's not uncommon for 100 million shares to change hands in a single trading session. SPY tracks the S&P 500 as closely as possible and holds all 503 stocks in the index. Since the Great Recession, investors who chose S&P index funds over DJIA funds have been rewarded.
What is an S&P 500 ETF?
The best S&P 500 index funds aren't just mutual funds and ETFs with multiple-decade track records. Many fund providers tweak the S&P 500 a bit for their purposes, whether to add more exposure to specific sectors or focus more on large or small-cap stocks. For example, the Vanguard S&P 500 Growth ETF (NYSE: VOOG) whittles down the S&P 500 to 233 stocks and focuses on the companies with the highest growth potential.
This ETF seeks growth, so naturally, the holdings are heavily weighted toward the tech sector. VOOG has 34% of its holdings in tech sector stocks compared to SPY's 27%. And while growth funds tend to bring in more than average volatility, an investment in the Vanguard S&P 500 Growth ETF has beaten the main S&P 500 index over the last five years.
How to Invest in the S&P 500
Want to know how to buy S&P 500 stock? First, you'll need to familiarize yourself with ETFs and mutual funds since they're the best way to get exposure to the index. Here's a quick three-step guide for building an S&P 500 investment.
Step 1: Develop an investment strategy.
First, you'll need to plan your investment and ask yourself a few questions about timelines and risk tolerance. For example, are you investing long-term in a retirement account or for a more short-term venture like a house down payment or vacation fund? Your investment goals will determine which type of S&P 500 asset you buy, so always consider your plans before purchasing any shares.
Step 2: Choose an asset class for S&P 500 exposure.
Next, choose the type of security you want for your S&P 500 investment. If investing in a tax-advantaged retirement account like an IRA, you'll probably want to use mutual funds with low expense rates. If investing in a taxable brokerage account, consider an index ETF to avoid capital gains distributions.
Step 3: Purchase shares and follow your investment plan.
Once you know what to buy, purchase your shares in your preferred investment account and follow your previously mapped-out plan. Most investors use the S&P 500 as a long-term trade since the index constantly updates itself to bring in the best and most promising US-based companies. If you want to take on more risk, consider thematic ETFs like the Vanguard S&P 500 Growth Index ETF.
The S&P 500 Offers a Variety of Investment Opportunities
The S&P 500 is one of the stock market's most significant indices, tracking the performance of the 500 most prominent US-based public companies. And while the index doesn't always match economic growth step-for-step, it's used as a proxy to gauge the health of the broader US economy. The S&P 500 can be invested in through many different securities, like ETFs, mutual funds and even derivatives like options and futures. Whatever your strategy or timeline, the S&P 500 likely plays a major role in your decision-making. You'll want to always stay on top of the companies in this index.
Here are a few frequently asked questions about investing in the S&P 500.
What is the best way to buy the S&P 500?
The best way to buy the S&P 500 depends on your risk tolerance and preferred account type. Most investors choose between ETFs and mutual funds when considering S&P 500 exposure.
Can I buy $100 of the S&P 500?
You can either buy a share of an S&P 500 fund priced under $100 or use a brokerage with partial shares and buy $100 worth of your preferred S&P 500 ETF.
How should a beginner invest in the S&P 500?
ETFs and mutual funds are the best S&P 500 investment vehicles for beginners. Pay attention to expense rates so you pay less for a simple index fund.