What is the S&P 500?

What is the S&P 500? You’ve probably heard it mentioned dozens – if not hundreds of times. Do you know what it is though? Financial experts seem to assume that everyone understands so they don’t take any time to say what that actually means. Today we’ll take a few minutes to clarify this term because understanding what the S&P 500 is can have a large impact on your overall investing.

What is the S&P 500?

The “S&P” part of the term actually stands for Standard and Poor’s. Standard and Poor’s is a 150+-year-old company that performs research and analysis on companies, entire industries, and related publicly traded stocks.

One popular service they provide is credit ratings on a large variety of entities. But what they are best known for – at least by “normal people” – is the S&P 500 index. That index is a list of 500 of the largest publicly traded American companies. It’s a well-diversified group representing quite a few different industries across the entire corporate landscape.

Because of the wide range of companies, and their sizes on the stock market exchanges, this index is what is often referenced when someone says “the market”. Was “the market” up last year? That very likely refers to the aggregate direction of this group of stocks. Some may be up, and some may be down. When more increase in value than decline, that is often considered that “the market” is up.

I like how Investopedia sums it up:

“The S&P 500 is widely regarded as the most accurate gauge of the performance of large-cap American equities. While the S&P 500 focuses on the large-cap sector of the market; it is considered representative of the market because it includes a significant portion of the total value of the market.”

What does large-cap mean?

If you don’t know what “large-cap” means, that paragraph might be a little confusing. Large-cap is short for companies with large capitalization. It essentially means publicly traded companies whose total value of their stock is worth more than $10 billion dollars. A mid-cap company has a total stock value of between $2 and $10 billion. A small-cap company would have a total stock value of under $2 billion dollars. $2 billion may not sound “small” – at least it doesn’t to me – but when comparing the landscape of American companies, that actually is a comparatively small number.

Investing in the S&P 500

If you have faith in the overall health and future of the American market, you might want to consider investing in the companies that make up the S&P 500 index. There are two main ways to do this: 1) Buy shares of stock in every single company in the index; 2) Buy shares of a fund that tracks the companies in the index.