Selecting the Right S&P 500 ETF

Selecting the Right S&P 500 ETF

6 Min.

The S&P 500 ETFs are exchange-traded funds that track the influential U.S. large-cap index in a passive manner. Three of the most popular ETFs that track the S&P 500 are offered by State Street (SPDR), Vanguard (VOO), and iShares (IVV). Compared to the industry average, index ETFs generally have lower expense ratios. However, ETFs that track the same index may have different expenses and differ in their reinvestment strategy or payment of dividends.


The S&P 500 Index serves as a comprehensive gauge of the U.S. economic landscape, assessing the market capitalization of the top 500 corporations in the nation. Pioneering the realm of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), the inaugural ETF, known as the Standard & Poor's Depositary Receipt (SPDR or "spider"), emerged in 1993 courtesy of State Street Global Advisors, utilizing the S&P 500 as its benchmark.

Having withstood the test of time, SPDR (SPY) is the oldest ETF and ranks among the largest by any metric. As of late August 2023, SPY boasts an impressive $400 billion in assets under management. Beyond SPY, State Street's ETF lineup extends into a diverse family of SPDR funds, each tailored to specific geographic regions or market sectors. In the dynamic landscape of investor capital, SPY faces formidable competition for fresh investments.

How Does an S&P 500 ETF Work?

Within the intricate framework of an S&P 500 ETF lies a meticulous process. Acting as the benchmark for such ETFs, the S&P 500 Index guides the financial institution overseeing the ETF to procure shares in every company within the index. This acquisition mirrors the index's weighting, entwining the investor's capital with the fortunes of the S&P 500.

Yet, the process is nuanced. The ETF manager navigates the challenge of adjusting the portfolio annually, trading a select dozen or so stocks. Changes stem from various factors, including corporate acquisitions or a failure to meet the S&P 500's stringent criteria leading to a stock's removal. In response, the ETF sponsor divests the outgoing index component, either through sale or exclusion from the index holdings. The vacuum is filled by the new S&P 500 listing, meticulously chosen to uphold the ETF's fidelity to the index. The outcome is an ETF that impeccably mirrors the S&P 500's movements.

Leading Figures in S&P 500 Exchange-Traded Funds

The inaugural S&P 500 ETF by State Street marked the onset, yet it was far from solitary in mirroring the S&P 500 Index. Vanguard's S&P 500 ETF (VOO), unveiled in 2010, commands over $304 billion in assets, while BlackRock's iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) manages a substantial $343 billion as of late August 2023. These three entities reign supreme in the realm of S&P 500 Index funds.

The significant investments in the S&P 500 can be rationalized by the inherent advantages of ETFs, serving as a cost-efficient avenue for diversified exposure to numerous stocks. The S&P 500 Index, acting as a benchmark, facilitates instantaneous diversification across diverse industries and the largest corporations within each sector. Despite the apparent parity among S&P ETFs, fiscal prudence asserts its influence in wealth accumulation, spotlighting the crucial metric of the expense ratio.

Navigating Expense Ratios in S&P 500 ETFs

In investments, profit emerges from proceeds minus expenses, a principle that echoes through the popularity of ETFs due to their relatively modest fees. However, nuances exist in the expense ratios among these funds. State Street imposes a 0.0945% expense ratio on SPY, surpassing the 0.03% expense ratios of Vanguard's VOO and BlackRock's IVV.

While the allure of an S&P 500 ETF for diversification is evident, the decision is not as straightforward. SPDR shares, markedly more heavily traded than Vanguard or iShares counterparts, offer liquidity advantages. Yet, even thinly traded S&P 500 ETFs transact nearly a million shares daily, requiring minimal patience.

Despite the variance in expense ratios, even 0.0945% is remarkably low, especially when contrasted with mutual funds sporting ratios 20 times higher. However, these funds entail active management, diverging from the passivity inherent in benchmark index stock purchases.

Variances in S&P 500 ETF Structures

The structure of State Street's SPDR, Vanguard's S&P 500 ETF, and BlackRock's iShares Core S&P 500 ETF introduces a nuanced distinction. SPDR operates as a unit investment trust constrained by an antiquated legal framework. State Street retains all purchased shares in-house, a unique characteristic not shared by Vanguard and BlackRock, which can lend its shares to external entities, earning interest in the process.

Dividend distribution in S&P 500 ETFs follows various avenues. SPDR accumulates dividends in cash for subsequent disbursement. In contrast, BlackRock's iShares Core S&P 500 ETF disburs dividends based on a formula-determined percentage. Vanguard offers flexibility, enabling investors to opt for dividend disbursement or reinvestment in its ultra-low-risk managed vehicles.

Key Factors to Consider When Selecting an S&P 500 Index ETF

In the quest for the optimal S&P 500 Index ETF, various factors warrant scrutiny. Liquidity, despite the inherent liquidity of S&P 500 ETFs, exhibits nuances in daily trading volume and bid-ask spreads among options. Additionally, assessing an ETF's tracking error proves pivotal. Given the vast pool of over 500 stocks within the S&P 500, some ETFs may opt for a selective approach, concentrating on pivotal or heavily-weighted stocks. This may result in a slight return variance compared to the benchmark index, impacting dividend yields.

Delving further, an ETF's inception date merits consideration, providing insight into its longevity. While a newer ETF doesn't inherently indicate inferiority, it does entail a shorter track record, limiting historical data for performance evaluation.

Top S&P 500 ETF Options for Investment

A myriad of S&P 500 ETFs is available for consideration beyond those spotlighted here. Notable selections include:

  1. SPY: State Street's SPDR S&P 500 ETF, the pioneering ETF, retains its position as one of the most liquid S&P ETFs, particularly favored by options traders. It carries a 0.0945% expense ratio.
  2. VOO: Vanguard's premier S&P 500 ETF, known for its low 0.03% expense ratio, aligns with Vanguard's commitment to cost-effectiveness in passive index offerings.
  3. IVV: iShares' counterpart to Vanguard, the S&P 500 ETF, mirrors its competitor with a 0.03% expense ratio, potentially suitable for tax-loss harvesting.
  4. SPLG: State Street responds to competitive fee structures with the SPDR Portfolio S&P 500 ETF (SPLG), boasting a 0.02% expense ratio.
  5. SPUU & SPXL: Direxion manages leveraged S&P 500 ETFs. SPUU (2x leveraged) and SPXL (3x leveraged) anticipate bullish index movements, amplifying returns or losses by 200% or 300%, respectively. These entail unique risks and are recommended for intraday holdings.
  6. SPDN & SPXS: Direxion also provides 2x (SPDN) and 3x (SPXS) leveraged ETFs with bearish orientations, anticipating S&P 500 declines. Gains or losses mirror two or three times the index returns in the opposite direction, suitable for intraday use due to inherent risks.


If you are not interested in trying to outperform the market and don't want to put in the effort to do so, investing in an S&P 500 index fund can be a great option. By being patient, you can track the market's performance very closely.

One of the best things about investing in an S&P 500 index fund is that investment firms have already done the hard work of purchasing the right amounts of each of the 500 companies that make up the index. They have bundled them into a single unit, which is available for purchase in small portions that anyone can afford. Considering the low expense ratio, this is a great deal.

S&P 500 ETF
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