What Is the Difference Between Stocks and Index Funds?

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Do stocks or index funds make more sense in your investment portfolio? For some, their belief in index fund investing runs so deep, it's almost like a religion. They'll tell anyone willing to listen to buy index funds. Others sleep better at night knowing their portfolio consists of individual companies they researched in-depth and chose by hand.

Here are some benefits and drawbacks of each to help you determine which option is right for you:

Investing in Stocks

When you buy shares of stock in individual businesses, you become a part owner of the company. That means you get a share of the profits or losses, based on how well the company does. 

For instance, suppose the McDonald's Corporation earned $4.5 billion after taxes in profit, and the company's board of directors decided to issue $2,46 billion of that to the company's stockholders in the form of a cash dividend. Because 1,010,368,852 shares are outstanding, this works out to $2.44 per share. If you owned 1,000 shares, you'd get $2,440 in cash. If you owned 1,000,000 shares, you'd get $2,440,000 in cash.

Investors who have bought ownership in successful companies in the past have grown rich. Imagine if you had become part owner of Amazon, Google, Berkshire Hathaway, Coca-Cola, Nike, Tesla, Target, or Disney when their stock prices were small. 

As their profits grow, you benefit based upon the total ownership you hold.

A $10,000 investment in Walmart when the company first issued stock to outside investors in 1970, has now grown to more than $150,000,000 with stock splits and dividends reinvested.

Sometimes companies fail. They may slowly decline or end in a catastrophic meltdown, like Enron. If you own stock in these companies, your shares might be worthless. It's the same as being a local bakery owner and forced to shut your doors.

Investing in Index Funds

When you buy an index fund, you are buying a basket of stocks designed to track a certain index. This could be the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500. In effect, buying shares of an index fund means you own shares of stock in dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of different companies indirectly.

Someone who invests in an index is saying, "I know I'll miss the Walmarts and McDonald's of the world, but I will also avoid the Enrons and Worldcoms. I want to make money from corporate America by becoming part owner. My only goal is to earn a decent rate of return on my money, so it will grow over time. I don't want to have to read annual reports and 10Ks, and I certainly don't want to master advanced finance and accounting."

Statistically speaking, 50% of stocks must be below average, and 50% of stocks must be above average. It is why so many index fund investors are so passionate about passive index fund investing. They don't have to spend more than a few hours each year looking over their portfolio. Whereas a stock investor in individual companies needs to be familiar with a company's business: its income statement, balance sheet, financial ratios, strategy, management, and more.

Only you and your qualified financial planner can decide which approach is best and most appropriate for your situation. As a general rule, index fund investing is better than investing in individual stocks, because it keeps costs low, removes the need to constantly study earnings reports from companies, and almost certainly results in being "average," which is far preferable to losing your hard-earned money in a bad investment.