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The S&P 500 notches a record. How did we get here?

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The index is also popular with investors in exchange-traded funds, baskets of securities that trade like stocks. The largest ETF is the SPDR S&P 500, with $131 billion.

Q: Which index do professional investors follow?

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A: For anyone working in financial markets -- professional investors, academic types -- the S&P 500 is the main barometer. It’s built to mirror the overall stock market, and it’s a measure of how well Corporate America is doing.

"Anyone in our business uses the S&P," Luschini says. "Nobody uses the Dow. On any given day, if you stopped me on the street to ask where the Dow was trading, I couldn’t tell you. But I’ll generally know the number for the S&P."

Q: Why did it take the S&P 500 longer than the Dow to reach a new record?

A: Mainly, the answer is math. A single actor plays a larger role in a cast of 30 than a cast of 500. The Dow’s success owes a lot to one stock — IBM — because of its high price. Since March 9, 2009, when IBM closed at $83, its stock has gained 155 percent, shouldering a tenth of the Dow’s gain, according to Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices.

It’s a different story in the S&P 500, where Big Blue’s $237 billion market value gives it less than 2 percent of the index. Even mighty IBM isn’t strong enough to carry 500 companies worth $14 trillion.

Q: What about Apple’s recent struggles? Has its stock held the index back?

A: Yes. Apple is just one of 500 companies in the index but it’s still big enough, and its slump bad enough, to weigh it down. Since crossing above $700 last September, Apple’s stock has dropped 37 percent to $442.

Silverblatt calculated that if Apple had been trading at $650, the S&P 500 would have topped its all-time high on March 5, the same day the Dow cleared its old mark.

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Q: Which industries have powered the index up since 2009?

The answer shows just how nervous everybody was during the financial crisis. Back then, investors ditched banks, along with stocks from companies selling cars, jewelry and other goods that people stop buying when they’re worried about money. Since March 2009, banks have more than tripled, gaining 212 percent, according to FactSet data. Those so-called consumer-discretionary companies have gained even more.

Q: Which S&P 500 company has done best since the market bottom?

A: Wyndham Worldwide, a manager of hotels and resorts, has had the best run over the past four years — by far. Wyndham’s stock has soared 2,130 percent since 2009, according to FactSet. That surge tracked the company’s turnaround. In 2008, Wyndham lost $1 billion. Over the past year, it has posted a $400 million profit, reflecting the rise in vacation travel. and popularity of its time shares. In second place sits CBS, the broadcasting company, with a gain of 1,500 percent.

Q: What about the losers?

A: Some companies are in worse shape than during the dark days of the financial crisis. First Solar has lost 75 percent since March 2009. The once-popular maker of thin-film solar panels has faced a growing crowd of competitors and prices for solar panels have plunged.

Apollo Group comes in a close second, dropping 74 percent. Scandals at for-profit schools led to tighter government scrutiny of the industry, and enrollment subsequently fell at the company’s University of Phoenix.

Q: How do companies get into the 500 club?

A: A team of Standard & Poor’s economists and analysts known as the Index Committee manages the group.

The committee aims to have the index represent the makeup of the overall market, Silverblatt says, not to pick the 500 largest companies. For instance, utilities could surge in popularity someday and overtake banks in their share of the market. The index would then be tweaked to reflect the new rankings, he says. The committee would probably drop one lightweight bank and replace it with a growing utility.

Q: How many companies have been removed from the S&P 500 in the past four years? Why?

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