Who’s Behind the Index?

An index provider is a specialized firm that is dedicated to creating and calculating market indices and licensing its intellectual capital as the basis of passive products.

The work of an index provider includes four distinct phases:

The Importance of Index Providers

An index provider’s job is a crucial one.
Financial professionals and investors worldwide depend on indices for real-time information about market performance, and use index data as inputs for investment and economic decisions, big and small.

What’s more, assets totaling over USD 6 trillion are linked to the performance of market indices. The investment professionals who manage these assets rely on index providers for sound index construction, rigorous index maintenance, and uninterrupted data distribution.

In terms of its business model, an index provider can be compared to a software company in that it creates specialized products that are IP-intensive and typically delivered digitally. And like a software company, an index provider’s operations revolve around developing new products, licensing and distributing these products, and providing related service and support.

What do index providers do?

To better understand what index providers do, it can be helpful to consider what they don’t do:


  • Measure market movements
  • Provide benchmarks for measuring investment performance
  • Maintain and calculate indices
  • License indices to underlie investment products


  • Forecast market movements
  • Provide investment advice
  • Manage money
  • Issue or sell investment products

Conceptualization & Creation

Conceptualizing and building an index requires a deep understanding of asset classes, market mechanics, and securities classification, as well as the investment products that may eventually be needed to track the index.

The process of index creation begins with an idea. Every viable index must have a clear and sound purpose, although the purpose may vary. From there, an index provider will ask the following questions before moving forward with index creation:

For example, an index may cover U.S. mid-cap stocks, European bonds, or gold prices. This underlying market is sometimes described as the index’s universe, exposure, or opportunity set. The universe may be extremely precise—for example, large-cap Japanese technology stocks—or complex—such as high-dividend-paying, low-volatility stocks—but it must always be clearly defined and readily quantifiable.

The determination hinges on whether or not there are readily—and publicly—available prices for the types of constituents the index will include. Without these prices, there is no way to establish a reliable index value. What’s more, the provider must ensure that the securities in an index are sufficiently liquid so that financial firms seeking to replicate that index’s performance will be able to acquire these securities readily and in sufficient quantity when the index portfolio or its weighting changes.

The index should have utility either as a benchmark or as the basis of an index-based product, ensuring that it meets a particular need and is marketable. Unless it seems likely that the index will be of value to potential users, it’s unlikely the index provider will pursue its creation.

If the index is intended to be licensed as the basis of index-based products, the index provider must confirm that the securities or instruments to be included in an index are sufficiently liquid so that financial firms seeking to replicate that index’s performance will be able to acquire these securities or instruments in sufficient quantity initially and when the weightings of the constituents change upon rebalancing.

Calculation & Dissemination

When the index constituents have been selected and weighted, the index provider begins calculating the index in accordance with the methodology. Most indices are computed on a daily basis, many of them in real time.

For example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average® is computed once every two seconds. However, a select few may be calculated monthly or on some other schedule, based on when the input data is available.

Index providers distribute these index values in various ways, such as on a provider’s own website, through data redistributors such as Bloomberg and Reuters, and in data files that are transmitted directly to index licensees. “Back-tested” daily historical index levels may also be calculated when an index is launched. These back-tested values, which are created by applying the current index methodology to historical databases of securities, indicate how the index would likely have performed had it existed in the past. However, back-tested data should be interpreted with caution, because it provides only a theoretical estimation of how the index would have performed, and past performance, real or theoretical, is not a guarantee of future results.

What Is Back-Tested Data?

Back-tested data includes any index values that represent how an index
might have performed, had it existed prior to its launch date.

Maintenance & Rebalancing

Once the index has been published, ongoing real-time monitoring and daily maintenance begin so it can run up to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Since market and other conditions constantly affect the securities included in an index, the provider must periodically rebalance the index. Regular rebalancing requires that the provider track every component security to be sure it still meets the criteria for inclusion, determine which stocks should be added or removed based on the rules in the methodology, and establish new weightings.

Ongoing maintenance also involves tracking corporate actions, such as mergers, spin-offs, stock splits, and dividend and interest payments that can impact index components, and applying the changes as they occur. For example, if a company in an index has been made private, it will be dropped because its stock is no longer publicly traded.

Licensing & Support

An index provider’s business objectives are to license its indices to qualified firms for professional use, to retain these clients by providing the services and support needed to use the indices, and to market the indices.

To cultivate demand for its products, an index provider:

  • Licenses its indices to asset managers and other financial institutions, who use the indices to create investable financial products such as ETFs and benchmark portfolios, and to conduct research and analysis.
  • Licenses its indices to the media for real-time display on television and financial websites.

An index provider also supports its clients and seeks to market its indices through the services it provides. The provider builds relationships with financial advisors and other intermediaries who, by promoting index-based products to their clients, help to popularize index investing and generate greater demand for the indices.

Mechanics Behind Index Providers

Not all indices are alike. 
Neither are all index providers.

It’s important to know how to distinguish an outstanding provider from those that may not measure up. One way to do this is by looking closely at five key characteristics:

You’ve completed Chapter 2.

Now, test your knowledge by taking a brief quiz.

01 An example of a function performed by an index provider is:
02 Which of the following is typically accounted for during index rebalancings?
03 To whom might an index provider license an index?
04 Why should back-tested data be viewed with caution?
05 Which of the following factors will an index provider typically consider when creating an index?
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