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Dow vs. S&P, Who's King of the Market?

Wednesday, 13 Mar 2013 | 12:34 PM ET
What's the Big Deal About the Dow?
Wednesday, 13 Mar 2013 | 10:22 AM ET
When the Dow reaches record lows or highs, investors take notice, yet it only represents 30 companies. Is the index outdated? And, is the S&P 500 a better barometer of the economy? CNBC's Jane Wells takes a look.

The Dow is the King of Indices. When it makes history, we listen. But should another wear the crown?

Most news reports about the stock market always lead with the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The NASDAQ usually follows, with the S&P 500 bringing up the rear. The S&P is like the Rodney Dangerfield of market measurements.

It's time to right this wrong.

"Most money managers benchmark themselves against the S&P," said Robert Kaplan, the former vice chairman at Goldman Sachs and currently a professor at the Harvard Business School.

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Even though the Dow comprises 30 of the biggest, most well-established companies in the U.S., the S&P 500 is often considered a better barometer, not only because of the breadth and depth of companies represented, but because many of those firms represent the future.

"If you want to buy emerging companies, you're much more likely to find them among the S&P than you are among the Dow," Kaplan said, even though "you might get some laggards in the S&P. You're not likely to get those in the Dow."

Holger Leue | Lonely Planet Images | Getty Images

The combined market cap of the Dow 30 companies is about $4.25 trillion, while the combined value of the 500 companies in the S&P more than triples that figure to nearly $14 trillion. Most exchange traded funds are tied to the S&P or sectors within it, not the Dow. So why do we hold onto this fascination with the DJIA?

"We've had it since the 1890s, it's historic," said Kaplan. He added that these 30 companies remain a pretty good measurement of the health of the U.S. economy. "I don't think they reflect the economy as well as the top 500, but, listen, any time you pick the top 30 data points, it gives you a pretty good indication."

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The two indices move in tandem, but not exactly. What's a good analogy? How do you compare them?

Remember those SAT questions, "A is to B as C is to D"? Let's be creative. Here are my suggestions for comparing the Dow to the S&P 500.

The Gilligan Factor

If the Dow is sexy Ginger, the S&P is dependable Mary Ann. (Google this one kids, it's a debate that's been raging far longer than Edward vs. Jacob.)

Starbucks Brew

The Dow is like a frothy tall latte, while the S&P is a mega extra-large "trenta" black coffee.

Battleship

The Dow is an aircraft carrier, the S&P is the entire fleet.

Star Trek

The Dow is Capt. Kirk (flashy), the S&P is Capt. Picard (capable).

Yankee Indicator

The Dow is A-Rod, the S&P is Jeter.

I could go on and on ... Dow v. S&P is like:

Apple vs. Amazon

Oscars vs. Golden Globes (includes TV!)

Boxers vs. Briefs

And my favorite:

Aragorn vs. Frodo. Yes, Aragorn reveals himself to be a king in "The Lord of the Rings," but lowly Frodo saves Middle Earth. In other words, Aragorn is Alcoa, and Frodo is ... Google.

Work with me here.

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells

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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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