What's the Difference Between the Dow, the Nasdaq, and the S&P 500?

Turn on the news and you'll see these three stock market indices. Here's the difference between them and why it matters.

Jul 8, 2014 at 1:00PM
Take The Long View

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) was down 0.74% as of 1:05 p.m. EDT, falling back under the 17,000 mark. The S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC)was down just slightly more, while the Nasdaq (NASDAQINDEX:^IXIC) plummeted by 1.5%.

Days like this can leave beginning investors confused by the mechanics of the markets. How bad is the market? Is it 0.7% bad like the Dow or S&P, or is it twice that bad as we see in the Nasdaq?

To understand exactly what's happening in the market today, let's break down each of these major indices and drill down into why each is different and also somewhat the same.

The Dow Jones
The Dow Jones Industrial Average is the oldest, best known, and most followed of the major stock market indices. It is comprised solely of 30 large-cap companies. These companies represent a huge array of American business -- from consumer facing to business-to-business, tech to manufacturing, domestic to international, and everything in between. 

Two concepts make the Dow so popular. First, the companies in the index are huge, and taken together they legitimately represent a huge swath of the U.S. economy. So while there are thousands of publicly traded companies, these big boys are sufficiently large to effectively act as a proxy for all the other enterprises.

^DJI Chart

^DJI data by YCharts.

Second, the Dow components are nearly universally recognized household names. With the likes of Coca Cola (NYSE:KO), McDonald's, or IBM, investors know that these companies are the real deal, with the size, scale, and presence in the economy to accurately stand as a proxy for the overall markets.

The Dow does have a quirk, a remnant of its history of more than a century. The index is price-weighted, meaning that companies with a higher share price have a larger impact on the Dow's movements. That's why Visa (NYSE:V)has an 8.1% weight versus just 1.59% for Coke.The S&P 500

The S&P 500 takes a slightly different approach to represent the movements of the broader markets. The index covers the largest companies that trade on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq Stock Market, weighted by market cap.

The S&P 500 chooses component companies based on a few basic criteria. The stock must trade at sufficient volume with adequate market liquidity. The company's market cap must be above $5 billion. At least 50% of the company's stock must be part of the public float.

The S&P also attempts to mirror the diversity of the largest companies on the NYSE and Nasdaq; if 10% of the largest companies are in manufacturing, then the S&P will attempt to maintain 10% of the index in manufacturing companies.

^SPX Chart

^SPX data by YCharts.

There are two other obvious yet notable contrasts with the Dow. First, there's the number of component stocks, 30 versus 500. The S&P is a much broader measure of the markets and captures a greater percentage of the U.S. economy. That said, the lower you move in market cap, the less impact those stocks have on the index as a whole. So in many instances, the Dow and the S&P track each other very closely.

Second, unlike the Dow, the S&P is not price-weighted. Instead, it weights its component companies by the actual size of the company in the market. This eliminates some of the odd Dow pricing when a stock with a high stock price but relatively lower market cap makes a large movement in either direction.

Both of these differences creates a smoothing effect on the S&P -- it's just not as volatile as the Dow.

The Nasdaq
First, let's clarify exactly what we're talking about here. The Nasdaq (NASDAQ:NDAQ) is a stock exchange, similar to the New York Stock Exchange. It was, in fact, the first all-electronic stock exchange. That is not what we're here to discuss.

We're talking about the Nasdaq Composite, another market proxy based on certain stocks being publicly traded. The Nasdaq Composite is based on the 4,000+ stocks being traded on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The difference is subtle, but it's worth understanding to avoid any confusion.

Generally, the Nasdaq Composite is a good proxy for what is happening in the tech segments of the markets. The vast majority of the companies trading on the exchange are tech, which leads to this generalization. 

^IXIC Chart

^IXIC data by YCharts.

That said, there are certainly a respectable number of companies from a broad range of industries also traded on the Nasdaq Composite -- from banks to airlines to coffee shops. But these nontech components remain a small contingent in this index.

Like the S&P, the Nasdaq is weighted by market cap, thus avoiding some of the odd pricing situations seen with the Dow.

So which way is the market heading?
When I see the headlines at the end of the day's trading, I tend to gravitate to the S&P 500. To me, the 500 component stocks weighted by market cap is the best representation of the broad market movements. 

If you're interested in tech, then you may have more interest in the Nasdaq. Just know that you're not looking at the market in a broad sense with that index, you're looking disproportionately at the tech segment.

The Dow, of course, is and will remain the primary index used in the news and by most public market commentators. It's the oldest, it's the best known, and in truth it's good enough to serve in that role. But, as a Foolish investor, always keep in the back of your mind that it has just 30 stocks and it's calculated with that oddball price-weighted system.

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Jay Jenkins has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Visa. The Motley Fool owns shares of International Business Machines and Visa and has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

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This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

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KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

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David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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