Wall Street number junkies can’t get enough of the Dow Jones Industrial Average right now. The Dow cleared its all-time intraday high of 14,198.10 early Tuesday morning, then hurdled its all-time closing high of 14,164.53 with a new mark of 14,253.77.
However, a couple other important numbers — $141.95 and $142.34 — went mostly unreported.
Those numbers represent the old and new records for the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF (NYSE:DIA), aka “the Diamonds” — investors’ only exchange-traded method for investing in the venerable blue-chip index.
But much as the Dow’s exhaustively covered ascension to new heights has rekindled questions about the average’s relevancy when there’s a far better totem (the S&P 500) for American stocks, one can’t help but wonder why you’d use the Diamonds to “buy the market” when you can buy broader S&P 500 ETFs — the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (NYSE:SPY) chief among them — for cheaper.
When it comes to what the Dow Jones and S&P 500 are thought to serve as — a benchmark for American stocks — the latter is clearly superior. A few reasons off the top of my head:
- The S&P 500 represents 500 companies, whereas the Dow Jones represents just 30. By sheer numbers alone, the S&P 500 has a better chance of covering a broader swath of our economy.
- The S&P 500 does, in fact, cover a broader swath of our economy. For one, the Dow Jones still is most heavily weighted in industrials … a segment that waved bye-bye as America’s defining sector long ago. Also, I think the Dow would have to jettison several components just to include enough food-based companies to accurately reflect the nation. And then there’s the glaring omissions of…
- Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and/or Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). Both speak to our increasingly technology-dependent and -enamored society, and both are among the country’s largest businesses. Not including Apple or Google at some point in the past five years — while Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), relevant only as a punchline, remained — illustrates how willfully antiquated the index is and always will be.
Had the Dow Jones Industrial Average never existed, and instead was created a year or two ago as the Woodley Dirty Thirty Index, marketed as “the next American benchmark” and launched in tandem with a tracking ETF, the investing world would have collectively shrugged and said, “Meh.” And rightfully so.
But here’s the thing about that flawed SPDR Woodley Dirty Thirty Index Fu … er, DIA: It would’ve made you some money.
Year-to-date alone through Tuesday’s close, the DIA has returned 7.82% vs. the SPY’s 6.46% — more than making up for the Diamonds’ 8 extra basis points of expenses. And as you can see from the following table, the DIA has more than held its own, beating the SPY in a number of yearlong periods.
That’s because for all of its philosophical flaws as a “true” American benchmark, the Dow Jones — and by proxy, DIA — is similar enough in its holdings to somewhat closely track the SPY (historically speaking, that’s a good thing), yet different enough to experience periods of outperformance.
How similar? Dow components account for 8 of SPY’s top 10 holdings — including its largest holding, Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) — 16 of its top 25 holdings, 23 of its top 50 and 28 of its top 100. As a whole, the SPY is actually 30% weighted in Dow components.
Naturally, what makes the Diamonds and SPY different is that the DIA is … well, 100% weighted in Dow components. So in almost every case (but not all), the Dow’s individual stocks have much more sway on the DIA than they do the SPY, for better or worse.
The best example is IBM (NYSE:IBM). If Ginni Rometty wakes up tomorrow and says her company is shifting from information technology to making corrugated boxes, not only will Packaging Company of America (NYSE:PKG) be royally pissed off, but IBM stock will probably tank – and SPY and DIA will suffer as a result. However, IBM makes up just 1.6% of SPY vs. nearly 11% of DIA, so the Diamonds will be in a much bigger world of hurt.
Thus, as is the case with every last equity fund, DIA’s worth — and the decision of whether DIA makes a better play than SPY — comes down to its holdings.
A bet on the Diamonds today is a slightly heavier bet on industrials, consumer discretionary and energy, and a more concentrated bet on a smaller number of individual stocks — most notably IBM and Chevron. SPY, meanwhile, will give you somewhat heavier (but certainly more diversified) exposure to tech and financials, among other sectors. And at least for now, you’re getting a little more income via the DIA — 2.3% vs. 2% for the SPY.
The popularity ballot already has been cast in the ETF market. The Diamonds has roughly $11 billion in assets under management, while the SPY and two other 500-tracking ETFs — iShares’ IVV and Vanguard’s VOO — have amassed more than $170 billion.
But the DIA shouldn’t be dismissed. Even if you and I might argue about the truest measure of American stocks, that argument ultimately comes down to our own perceptions — you’re not inherently “wrong” if you choose the DIA to play the market.
And you might just beat the SPY.
Kyle Woodley is the Deputy Managing Editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Follow him on Twitter at @IPKyleWoodley.