What is an Index? Basics for Investors

January 7, 20246 min read
What is an Index? Basics for Investors
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Key Takeaways 

  • The index is a tool investors use to track the performance of investments, such as stocks.
  • While some of them are relatively small, there is an index, and index fund, for nearly every existing financial market.
  • Stock market indexes are built by mixing equities with similar market capitalizations, industries, or company sizes.

Some investors and funds use financial indexes to track assets’ performances in a standardized manner. For those unacquainted with the tool, here is index definition, index funds, and how investors utilize them.

What is an Index?

What is index? The index definition  is a tool investors use to track the performance of investments, such as stocks.

Investors use indexes as benchmarks by comparing them with the performance of stocks, bonds, or mutual funds. Such indexes are expressed numerically.

Index Examples 

Prominent examples of stock market indexes are the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500. They track the stock movements of large companies as well as the broader market.

When addressing “what is index,” it is important to note that there are other indexes that only follow a specific market sector or industry. There is an index, and fund, for nearly every existing financial market.

Continuing with index definition, here are examples of common indexes explained:

  • S&P 500 Index. This index follows the market movements of some 500 of the nation’s largest publicly traded companies. It is capitalization weighted, meaning that every stock is weighted in proportion to the business’s market capitalization. Compared with a $10 billion company, for example, a company whose overall shares are valued at $100 billion carries a heavier weight.
  • Dow Jones Industrial Average. The index definition here considers the performances of the 30 largest U.S. companies. Shares are known as “blue chip” stocks. Note that market capitalization is not a factor here.
  • Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index. What is an index? Here, it tracks the fixed-rate, investment-grade bond market that is dominated by the U.S. dollar.
  • Nasdaq Composite Index. This index follows the stock movements of more than 3,000 technology-related companies.
  • Russell 2000 Index. The index definition here tracks 2,000 smaller companies that have market capitalizations of between $300 million and $2 billion.

How are Indexes Built?

Stock market indexes are built by mixing equities with similar market capitalizations, industries, or company sizes. Subsequently, the index is computed based on the stock selection. Every stock, though, will have its own price. Further, a single stock’s price range will differ from the range in another. All this comprises index definition.

What is an Index Fund?

This is a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) with specially designed portfolios. The holdings are built to track or match part of a financial market index. 

Investors are increasingly using such index funds, or ETFs, as part of a passive investing strategy. Instead of attempting to “beat” the market, these funds seek to match segment or broad-market performance. In fact, they follow their benchmark index independent of the state of the market. An example is the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBTLX).

Note that weighting is a way to offset the influence of a single index holding or a portfolio. Managers of funds that follow a weighted index will, at times, rebalance the percentage of varying securities. The idea is for the funds to reflect the weight of their presence within the benchmark.

Because these funds hold stocks that represent an entire index, how they fare reflect the benchmark index. Because, over time, index values typically increase, such funds are a common way in which investors build wealth.

Index funds are particularly popular holdings for retirement accounts including 401(k) and individual retirement accounts.

Index Fund vs Actively Managed Funds

Index funds follow their benchmark regardless of market performance. An actively managed fund, though, uses one manager or a management team to seek to outperform the market.

As with anything else in the financial sector, there are benefits and drawbacks to each fund type.

On the plus side, index funds can, over time, offer more stable returns. They also have low fees and offer a diversified portfolio. For their part, index mutual funds have relatively low operating expenses and portfolio turnover. They also provide broad market exposure.

In terms of drawbacks, there is less flexibility with index funds. Such funds do not provide the nimbleness to swiftly respond when the prices of assets held drop. Also, the size of such funds typically result in moderate annual returns. There also are fewer opportunities for short-term growth.

As for actively managed funds, they generally offer prospects for higher returns. They also offer the ability to adjust to market changes, as well as the opportunity for diversification.

Possible disadvantages include higher fees and challenges in terms of consistently beating the market. And there is always the risk of human error.

Investing Outside Public Markets

Indexes are used in what are inherently volatile public markets. Investors weary of the constant fluctuations are increasingly turning to alternative, private-market investments. Asset classes such as art, real estate, and private equity have no direct correlation to the stock market.

Further, private markets, going back nearly 20 years, have outperformed stocks in every economic downturn. The alternative investment platform Yieldstreet, on which more than $4 billion has been invested to date, offers the broadest selection of alternative asset classes available.

Adding alternative assets to investment holdings also serves another essential purpose: diversification. Creating a portfolio with a mix of asset types and expected returns can mitigate overall volatility. It can also shield against inflation and improve portfolio performance.

Rise above Volatility

Diversify beyond the stock market with Yieldstreet.

Alternative Investments and Portfolio Diversification

Alternative investments can be a good way to help accomplish this. Traditional portfolio asset allocation envisages a 60% public stock and 40% fixed income allocation. However, a more balanced 60/20/20 or 50/30/20 split, incorporating alternative assets, may make a portfolio less sensitive to public market short-term swings. 

Real estate, private equity, venture capital, digital assets, precious metals and collectibles are among the asset classes deemed “alternative investments.” Broadly speaking, such investments tend to be less connected to public equity, and thus offer potential for diversification. Of course, like traditional investments, it is important to remember that alternatives also entail a degree of risk. 

In some cases, this risk can be greater than that of traditional investments.

This is why these asset classes were traditionally accessible only to an exclusive base of wealthy individuals and institutional investors buying in at very high minimums — often between $500,000 and $1 million.  These people were considered to be more capable of weathering losses of that magnitude, should the investments underperform.

However, Yieldstreet has opened a number of carefully curated alternative investment strategies to all investors. While the risk is still there, the company offers help in capitalizing on areas such as real estate, legal finance, art finance and structured notes — as well as a wide range of other unique alternative investments. 

Moreover, investors can get started with a relatively small amount of capital. Yieldstreet has opportunities across a broad range of asset classes, offering a variety of yields and durations, with minimum investments as low as $10,000

Learn more about the ways Yieldstreet can help diversify and grow portfolios.


Investors often use indexes as benchmarks to gauge an asset’s performance and to make investment decisions. Remember that there are also alternative ways to invest that have little correlation to volatile public markets.

We believe our 10 alternative asset classes, track record across 470+ investments, third party reviews, and history of innovation makes Yieldstreet “The leading platform for private market investing,” as compared to other private market investment platforms.

1 Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Any historical returns, expected returns, or probability projections may not reflect actual future performance. All securities involve risk and may result in significant losses.

3 "Annual interest," "Annualized Return" or "Target Returns" represents a projected annual target rate of interest or annualized target return, and not returns or interest actually obtained by fund investors. “Term" represents the estimated term of the investment; the term of the fund is generally at the discretion of the fund’s manager, and may exceed the estimated term by a significant amount of time. Unless otherwise specified on the fund's offering page, target interest or returns are based on an analysis performed by Yieldstreet of the potential inflows and outflows related to the transactions in which the strategy or fund has engaged and/or is anticipated to engage in over the estimated term of the fund. There is no guarantee that targeted interest or returns will be realized or achieved or that an investment will be successful. Actual performance may deviate from these expectations materially, including due to market or economic factors, portfolio management decisions, modelling error, or other reasons.

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5 Represents the sum of the interest accrued in the statement period plus the interest paid in the statement period.

6 The internal rate of return ("IRR") represents an average net realized IRR with respect to all matured investments, excluding our Short Term Notes program, weighted by the investment size of each individual investment, made by private investment vehicles managed by YieldStreet Management, LLC from July 1, 2015 through and including July 18th, 2022, after deduction of management fees and all other expenses charged to investments.

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9 Statistics as of the most recent month end.

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