Index Investing

A passive investment method achieved by investing in an index fund

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What is Index Investing?

Index investing is a passive investment method achieved by investing in an index fund. An index fund is a fund that seeks to generate returns from the broader market by tracking an index. The S&P 500 is the most popular index to track, with a historical annual return of 10%.

Index Investing


  • Index investing is a passive investment method achieved by investing in an index fund.
  • The benefits of index investing include low cost, requires little financial knowledge, convenience, and provides diversification.
  • Disadvantages include the lack of downside protection, no choice in index composition, and it cannot beat the market (by definition).
  • To index invest, find an index, find a fund tracking that index, and then find a broker to buy shares in that fund.

Understanding Index Investing

Index investing falls under passive investing, which involves a buy-and-hold strategy for the long term. On the other hand, active investing is concerned with frequent buying and selling, coupled with continual monitoring of performance.

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are the security of choice when index investing. It is because ETFs are passively managed, and therefore low cost – the perfect medium for an index fund.

Advantages of Index Investing

Warren Buffet once said, “A low-cost index fund is the most sensible equity investment for the great majority of investors,” and it’s clear to see why.

  • Low cost: Because index funds take a passive approach tracking an index, it has lower management fees than an actively managed fund
  • Requires little financial knowledge: Index investing is relatively easy compared to building your own portfolio
  • Convenience: Index funds contain hundreds of stocks that would be incredibly hard to replicate at an individual level
  • Diversification: Holding a large array of stocks diversifies away idiosyncratic (firm-specific) risk

Disadvantages of Index Investing

  • Lack of downside protection: There is no floor to losses
  • No choice in the index fund’s composition: Cannot add or remove any holdings
  • Can’t beat the market: Can only achieve market returns (generally)

How to Start Index Investing

Step 1

The first step to index investing is choosing the right index for your preferences. As mentioned, a common index to track is the S&P 500, an index composed of 500 large U.S. companies. Other popular indexes include the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), a composite of 30 US large-cap companies, and the NASDAQ Composite, another U.S.-based index that is heavily weighted in the IT sector. The U.S. market is often used synonymously as the broad market because of its importance and influence as a financial hub.

For individuals with more advanced financial knowledge, index investing can be a very useful tool to potentially “beat the market.” If you expect a particular region, sector, or factor to outperform, you can choose to invest in an index that specializes in such areas. For example, if you expect Asia to outperform in the future, you may look into tracking an Asian index. Popular indexes include:

  • Shanghai SE Composite Index (China)
  • Hang Seng Index (Hong Kong)
  • Nikkei 225 (Japan)

The stock market is comprised of 11 sectors, formally known as the Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS). Such sectors include IT, healthcare, consumer discretionary, energy, industrials, and more. There are many available sector indexes that can be benchmarked.

Lastly, a factor is an attribute that’s been historically proven to provide excess returns across assets. Some identified factors include:

  • Value
  • Size
  • Quality
  • Momentum
  • Volatility
  • Growth

Each factor performs well at different points in the business cycle. If you feel confident of any specific factor, you can target it by buying into a factor index.

Of course, it should be noted that investing in a specific area will increase your risk. It is because if you choose to go overweight in a specific region/sector/factor and it ends up doing poorly, all your investments will suffer as a result. Nevertheless, higher risk comes with a higher return, so if you bet on a specific area that performs favorably, you can beat the broad market.

Step 2

The second step is to choose a fund that tracks such an index. There are many ETF providers that will have similar offerings with slight variations, so it is wise to do research into the differences. Such differences could be the expense ratio, dividend yield, performance, and more.

Step 3

The last step is to buy shares from your chosen index fund. To do so, you must open an account through a broker. Again, every broker may offer different benefits and drawbacks, so it is important to compare before jumping in.

More Resources

CFI is the official provider of the Capital Markets & Securities Analyst (CMSA)® certification program, designed to transform anyone into a world-class financial analyst.

In order to help you become a world-class financial analyst and advance your career to your fullest potential, these additional resources will be very helpful:

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