Loading the player...

What is a 'Benchmark'

A benchmark is a standard against which the performance of a security, mutual fund or investment manager can be measured. Generally, broad market and market-segment stock and bond indexes are used for this purpose.

BREAKING DOWN 'Benchmark'

Benchmarks are indexes created to include multiple securities representing some aspect of the total market. Benchmark indexes have been created across all types of asset classes. In the equity market, the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average are two of the most popular large cap stock benchmarks. In fixed income, examples of top benchmarks include the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, the Barclays Capital U.S. Corporate High Yield Bond Index and the Barclays Capital U.S. Treasury Bond Index. Mutual fund investors may use Lipper indexes, which use the 30 largest mutual funds in a specific category, while international investors may use MSCI Indexes. The Wilshire 5000 is also a popular benchmark representing all of the publicly traded stocks in the U.S. When evaluating the performance of any investment, it's important to compare it against an appropriate benchmark.

Identifying and setting a benchmark can be an important aspect of investing for individual investors. In addition to traditional benchmarks representing broad market characteristics such as large cap, mid cap, small cap, growth and value. Investors will also find indexes based on fundamental characteristics, sectors, dividends, market trends and much more. Having an understanding or interest in a specific type of investment will help an investor identify appropriate investment funds and also allow them to better communicate their investment goals and expectations to a financial advisor.

When seeking investment benchmarks, an investor should also consider risk. An investor's benchmark should reflect the amount of risk he or she is willing to take. Other investment factors around benchmark considerations may include the amount to be invested and the cost the investor is willing to pay.

Investment Industry Fund Management

The number of benchmarks has been expanding with product innovation. Benchmarks are often used as the central factor for portfolio management in the investment industry. Passive investment funds and smart beta funds are two strategies that are derived from benchmark investing. Replication strategies following customized benchmarks are also becoming more prevalent. Active managers are also in the market deploying actively managed strategies using indexes in the most traditional form, as benchmarks they seek to beat.

Passive

Benchmarks are created to include multiple securities representing some aspect of the total market. Passive investment funds were created to provide investors exposure to a benchmark since it is expensive for an individual investor to invest in each of the indexes’ securities. In passive funds the investment manager uses a replication strategy to match the holdings and returns of the benchmark index providing investors with a low cost fund for targeted investing. A leading example of this type of fund is the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) which replicates the S&P 500 Index with a management fee of 0.09%. Investors can easily find large cap, mid cap, small cap, growth and value mutual funds and ETFs deploying this strategy. (See also: Top 3 ETFs to Track the S&P 500 as of November 2017.)

Smart Beta

Smart Beta strategies were developed as an enhancement to passive index funds. They seek to enhance the returns an investor could achieve by investing in a standard passive fund by choosing stocks based on certain variables or by taking long and short positions to obtain alpha. State Street Global Advisors’ enhanced index strategies provide an example of this. The SSGA Enhanced Small Cap Fund (SESPX) seeks to marginally outperform its Russell 2000 benchmark by taking long and short positions in the small cap stocks of the index.

Market Segment Benchmarks

Market segment benchmarks can provide investors with other options for benchmark investing based on specific market segments such as sectors. The State Street Global Advisors SPDR ETFs provide investors the opportunity to invest in each of the individual sectors in the S&P 500. One example is the Technology Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLK).

Fundamental and Thematic Benchmarks

With the challenges of beating the market, many investment managers have created customized benchmarks that use a replication strategy. These types of funds are becoming more prevalent as top performers. These funds benchmark to customized indexes based on fundamentals, style and market themes. The Global X Robotics & Artificial Intelligence Thematic ETF (BOTZ) is one of the best performing non leveraged thematic ETFs in the investable universe. It uses an index replication strategy and seeks to track the Indxx Global Robotics & Artificial Intelligence Thematic Index. The Index is a customized index benchmark that includes companies involved in robotic and artificial intelligence solutions.

Active Management

Active management becomes more challenging with the growing number of benchmark replication strategies. Thus, for investors it becomes more challenging to find active managers consistently beating their benchmarks. In 2017, the ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK) is one of the top performing ETFs in the investable market. Year-to-date as of November 3 it had a return of 76.06%. Its benchmarks are the S&P 500 with a comparable return of 15.59% and the MSCI World Index with a comparable return of 17.55%.

The Value of Benchmarks

The value of benchmarks has been an ongoing topic for debate bringing about a number of innovations that center around investing in the actual benchmark indexes directly. Debates are primarily derived from the demands for benchmark exposure, fundamental investing and thematic investing.  Managers who subscribe to the efficient market hypothesis (EMH) claim that it is essentially impossible to beat the market, and then by extension, the idea of trying to beat a benchmark isn’t a realistic goal for a manager to meet. Thus, the evolving number of portfolio strategies centered around index benchmark investing. Nonetheless, there are active managers who do consistently beat benchmarks. These strategies do require extensive monitoring and often include high management fees. However, successful active managers are becoming more prevalent as artificial intelligence quantitative models integrate more variables with greater automation into the portfolio management process.

RELATED TERMS
  1. Active Return

    Active return is the percentage gain or loss of an investment ...
  2. Composite

    A composite is a grouping of equities, indexes or other factors ...
  3. Risk Measures

    Risk measures give investors an idea of the volatility of a fund ...
  4. Enhanced Indexing

    An investment philosophy that attempts to amplify the returns ...
  5. Index Investing

    Index investing is a passive strategy that attempts to track ...
  6. Active Index Fund

    Active index funds track an index fund with an additional layer ...
Related Articles
  1. Investing

    Active Management: Is It Working for You?

    There are guidelines when comparing an actively managed investment strategy with a benchmark.
  2. Investing

    How to Use a Benchmark to Evaluate a Portfolio

    What is an investment benchmark and how is it used to evaluate the risk and return in a portfolio.
  3. Investing

    How Vanguard Index Funds Work

    Learn how Vanguard index funds work. See how the index sampling technique allows Vanguard to charge low expense ratios that can save investors money.
  4. Investing

    How to Select and Build a Benchmark to Measure Portfolio Performance

    How to select and build a benchmark to measure the performance of your investment portfolio
  5. Investing

    Vanguard to Change Underlying Indexes for 3 ETFs

    Vanguard is making changes to the benchmarks for three of its sector funds and their ETF shares.
  6. Investing

    Why Investors Should Stop Watching the Indexes

    Using the Dow Jones or S&P 500 Index as benchmarks for your diversified portfolio causes problems.
  7. Financial Advisor

    IYW: iShares US Technology ETF

    Understand how the iShares US Technology exchange-traded fund (ETF) is managed, how it tracks its benchmark and for which investors it is most appropriate.
  8. Investing

    Is the World of Indexed Investing Too Big?

    Has indexed investing taken too much of the market from active investing?
  9. Investing

    3 Index Funds with the Lowest Expense Ratios

    Read detailed information about index mutual funds with some of the lowest expense ratios in their categories, and learn about their pros and cons.
  10. Investing

    Passively Managed Vs. Actively Managed Mutual Funds: Which is Better?

    Learn about the differences between actively and passively managed mutual funds, and for which types of investors each management style is best suited.
RELATED FAQS
  1. How do you calculate the excess return of an ETF or indexed mutual fund?

    Read about how to calculate and interpret the expected return generated by an exchange-traded fund (ETF) and an indexed mutual ... Read Answer >>
  2. Passive vs Active Portfolio Management

    Understand the difference between active portfolio management and passive portfolio management, and how each strategy benefits ... Read Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Return on Assets - ROA

    Return on assets (ROA) is an indicator of how profitable a company is relative to its total assets.
  2. Fibonacci Retracement

    A term used in technical analysis that refers to areas of support (price stops going lower) or resistance (price stops going ...
  3. Ethereum

    Ethereum is a decentralized software platform that enables SmartContracts and Distributed Applications (ĐApps) to be built ...
  4. Cryptocurrency

    A digital or virtual currency that uses cryptography for security. A cryptocurrency is difficult to counterfeit because of ...
  5. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority - FINRA

    A regulatory body created after the merger of the National Association of Securities Dealers and the New York Stock Exchange's ...
  6. Initial Public Offering - IPO

    The first sale of stock by a private company to the public. IPOs are often issued by companies seeking the capital to expand ...
Trading Center