Why Indexing Matters

Jim Fletcher

Wealth Manager
First Republic Investment Management

August 19, 2015

Indices are useful to gain insights into the internal dynamics of markets.  If using an index for comparison or benchmark purposes it is critical to know what is actually being measured. Is performance an outgrowth of a unique stock selection process or a by-product of other, larger trends in the market?  Understanding index construction lends insight into the question.

Many professional and personal investors research stocks using a favorite metric, whether it is earnings growth, price/earnings ratio, price/book value or a combination of several. After researching and culling their selections to a manageable number they enter buy orders for a roughly equal amount of each selected security. Such parity reflects the investor’s conclusion that the growth prospects for the individual securities are equally attractive.

For example, assume an investor has $10,000 to invest and wants to buy only two stocks. After research the investor decides that Apple and Staples will both benefit from a growing economy and the upside potential for each stock is 20%. In light of this the investor buys $5,000 of each stock.

While this makes intuitive sense it is not how a vast amount of money is invested in the United States.  Instead, many investors simply choose a broad-based index fund, such as one tied to the S&P 500 Index or the Wilshire 5000. Both of these are capitalization-weighted indices, meaning that larger companies are given more weight, more clout so to speak, than small companies (Market capitalization is the aggregate valuation of the company based on its current share price and the total number of outstanding stocks).

If our investor bought Apple and Staples in the way an index fund bought the same stocks the investor would buy $9,865 of Apple and only $139 of Staples, reflecting the fact that Apple’s market capitalization is about 71 times as large as Staples’.

A capitalization-weighted index is useful because it captures the moves of large companies and thus gauges well the overall economic effect created by changing prices of these large firms. A 1% change in the price of Apple will have a wealth effect 71 times greater than a 1% move in the price of Staples so it is reasonable to give Apple a greater weight in order to capture the total amount of global wealth increased or diminished.

But individuals are not particularly concerned about an aggregate wealth effect, they want to know about their personal wealth effect. Capitalization-weighted indices tend to mask the results of individual investors because the indices show a skewed, albeit useful, portfolio construction.

Many times it is more useful to look at the returns of an equal-weighted index. This type of index treats each company the same no matter what its size, so a 1% change in Apple’s stock price would have the same effect on the index as a 1% change in Staples’ stock. While not particularly useful in gauging an overall economic effect it can be a much better indicator of the results of a typical investor.

Over a long period of time the returns of the capitalization-weighted and equal-weighted indices are similar as shown in the chart below. However, on an annual basis returns can differ significantly, illustrating the differential performance of large and small companies. In 2014, for example, the Wilshire 5000 Capitalization-Weighted Index gained 12% while the Wilshire 5000 Equal-Weighted Index gained only 4.3%. This large variance was due to the simple fact that smaller companies underperformed large companies during the year.

Thus, understanding how an index is constructed will inform investors on return differences in portfolio construction style.  Over the long-term, it is not likely to matter much but can explain small capitalization biases (for or against) in any given year.   

This article is for information purposes only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation, or as the basis for any contract to purchase or sell any security, or other instrument, or to enter into or arrange any type of transaction as a consequence of any information contained herein.

All analyses and projections depicted herein are for illustration only, and are not intended to be representations of performance or expected results. The results achieved by individual clients will vary and will depend on a number of factors including prevailing dividend yields, market liquidity, interest rate levels, market volatilities, and the client's expressed return and risk parameters at the time the service is initiated and during the term. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Investors should seek financial advice regarding the appropriateness of investing in any securities, other investment or investment strategies discussed or recommended in this report and should understand that statements regarding future prospects may not be realized.

The investment services and products mentioned in this document may often have tax consequences; therefore, it is important to bear in mind that First Republic (or FRIM) does not provide tax advice. The levels and bases of taxation can change. Investors' tax affairs are their own responsibility and investors should consult their own attorneys or other tax advisors in order to understand the tax consequences of any products and services mentioned in this document.

©First Republic Investment Management, 2015