Experienced traders are keenly aware of the main U.S., European, and Asian stock indexes. Even inexperienced traders will have likely heard of the indexes that are reported in the news. Examples of closely watched indexes around the world include the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, FTSE 100, Nikkei 225, CAC 40, and DAX.
While most traders recognize the index names, many new traders don't know how the stock indexes are traded. They often assume that they are traded like individual stocks.
However, stock indexes cannot be traded directly. Instead, they exist for informational purposes only—as a way to track the performance of a group of stocks. Market data is available for the stock indexes, and they can be charted like any other stock, but there is no way to make either a long or short trade on the actual stock indexes themselves. That's where other financial products come in, like futures and options contracts, which can be used to trade the movements of stock indexes.
- A stock index shows how part of the stock market is performing, and it can be used to analyze industries, market sectors, and potential trades.
- Traders cannot trade indexes, but they can trade futures and options that are based on a stock index, known as derivatives markets.
- Futures and options markets often move with their underlying indexes, so many traders prefer to chart the index rather than temporary options markets.
A stock index is a sampling or collection of stocks that gives an overview of how a specific part of the stock market is performing. For example, a technology stock index will track technology stocks. The index moves with the overall performance of the stocks that it holds within it. This index can then be used by investors who want to quickly gauge the performance of technology stocks, either at that moment or over time.
Indexes are popular because they provide information for a basket of stocks, not just one. They make great analysis tools, which makes them great trading tools, as well. They can't be traded directly, but some products allow traders to participate in the movements of stock indexes. The S&P 500 is a very popular index among individual and institutional traders because it provides access to 500 stocks with a single futures or options contract transaction.
Futures and Options Markets
Whenever we hear a trader mention that they are long on the NASDAQ 100, or short on the S&P 500, they aren't technically long or short on the NASDAQ 100 or S&P 500 indexes. They are long or short on a futures or options market, such as the NQ futures market or the SPXW options market.
Futures and options that are based upon a stock index are known as derivatives markets because they are derived from the underlying stock index. The futures or options contract's value is based on the movements of the index it tracks. There are futures and options markets available for all of the popular stock indexes. Stock index futures and options are some of the most popular markets for short term and long term traders alike.
Futures and options markets usually move in synchronization with their underlying stock indexes. For example, when the CAC 40 stock index moves down, the CAC 40 futures market typically sinks by roughly the same amount. It is, therefore, possible to chart the stock indexes while trading the futures or options markets. That said, the futures contracts can also be charted and analyzed.
There are some advantages to charting the stock indexes instead of the futures or options markets. For example, the stock indexes are continuous markets, they do not expire as futures and options contracts do. That means traders do not need to update their charting software to a new contract every three months (or monthly, depending upon the market in question). The options markets are also difficult to chart because they consist of many equally active contracts (with different prices). Charting the stock indexes, instead, allows a trader to analyze multiple options contracts using a single chart.
If you do decide to chart the stock indexes instead of the futures or options markets, note that you still need to update your trading software (your order entry software) to use the appropriate futures or options contract when trading. Otherwise, you may find yourself trying to trade an expired contract and wondering why it isn't working.
Most charting software has a box where you input the symbol you want to chart. If you start typing the name of the index, the index and any futures or options related to it will often appear in a drop-down menu. Start typing "S&P 500," and you may see SPX, which is a common trading symbol on most charting platforms for the S&P 500 index (shown on this chart, along with the S&P 500 E-Mini Futures). You may also see varying futures or options products, and you can select them from the list to see a chart of those.
TradingView.com is a free charting site that provides index and futures charting, along with other products. Type in the name of an index, and then select whether you want to view indexes or futures from the drop-down list.
The Bottom Line
Stock indexes are a popular trading vehicle, but they can't be traded directly. An index is simply a collection of stocks (or other assets) that moves according to the stocks held within it. Traders can analyze both the index and the futures/options contract they are looking to trade. Indexes don't expire, but futures and options contracts do, so traders need to make sure they are trading the appropriate contract.