Investors Avoiding Both Stocks And Bonds

080519_USEconomy1My Thoughts: Many of us are concerned about our investments. We don’t want our money under the mattress; we don’t want it all in money markets; we know bonds are going to get hammered when the Fed decides to start raising interest rates; and we know that over the past three months, the stock market has gyrated wildly, with a mostly downward trend.

Unfortunately, this background article won’t help you very much. But it’s not too long.

By Conrad de Aenlle on Nov 5, 2015

What do fund flows tell us about investor behavior before, during and after the third-quarter dive in stocks and the direction of markets from here? Even though raw numbers on money moving in and out of funds should be reassuringly concrete, they leave a lot to interpretation.

The trepidation displayed by the stock market may have begun in mid-August and reached a crescendo soon after, but Louise Yamada, a highly regarded technical analyst who heads Louise Yamada Technical Research Advisors, contends that distress had been building throughout the third quarter. In the September edition of her monthly newsletter, Technical Perspectives, she pointed to data from the Investment Company Institute, a fund industry group, showing that owners of stock and bond mutual funds alike made net withdrawals in July and the first three weeks of August.

“Their observation is that usually stock withdrawals move into bond funds,” Yamada wrote, “but withdrawals from both [are] a sign of nervous investors. This pattern has not been seen since the fall of 2008, a statistic worth noting.”

But a lot has changed in the business since then. Mutual funds are no longer the only game in town, or at least the one that the great majority of investors play. Exchange-traded funds get a far bigger piece of the action today than just a few years ago, and Todd Rosenbluth, director of fund research at S&P Capital IQ, noted in a recent report that as money was leaving mutual funds of all sorts in and around the August swoon, it was being soaked up by ETFs.

During the two weeks through Sept. 2, a period that included the worst of the stock market’s decline and a big rebound, about $1.1 billion more was yanked from diversified domestic stock mutual funds than was put in, Rosenbluth said, citing Lipper data.

ETF flows tracked market action more closely. During the first of those two weeks, a net $5 billion came out of diversified stock ETFs, and the following week a net $7.8 billion was added to them. As for bond funds, mutual funds saw net outflows of about $2.5 billion during the two weeks, while ETFs had twice as much in inflows.

There probably wasn’t much overlap between the buyers and sellers of mutual funds and of ETFs during the market upheaval. In a conversation about his report, Rosenbluth said that mom-and-pop investors were probably doing the bulk of mutual fund dealing, while institutions were the main force behind the ETF flows.

The net effect, in his view, is an acceleration of the longstanding trend away from mutual funds and toward ETFs, as the market decline emphasized an edge — namely lower costs and correspondingly higher returns — that ETFs have over mutual funds, just when investors were looking for any edge they could get.

“I think we have seen an ongoing shift to passive products that the correction has amplified,” he said. “People don’t want to pay up to lose money.”

That may explain the preference for ETFs, but a look at fund flows through August and September suggests that the trend that Yamada inferred from mutual-fund flows and found worrisome — the shunning of both stocks and bonds before the plunge — may be lingering. Perhaps more ominous, the tendency exists even when ETFs are added into the mix.

Flows into domestic stock ETFs in September, about $7 billion, were just enough to negate the outflows from stock mutual funds, according to Morningstar, although outflows from stock mutual funds in August were double the flows into ETFs. As for bond portfolios, it was no contest. Over the two months, three times as much money departed mutual funds as entered ETFs.

Morningstar found six months over the last decade when investors had net withdrawals from stock mutual funds and ETFs combined and from bond funds, too, with August being the sixth. Two of the other five, August 2013 and June 2006, coincided with minor blips in long bull markets.

The other three — June 2015, August 2011 and October 2008, the latter period being the one Yamada alluded to — occurred just before or in the middle of corrections or bear markets. Anyone who saw fund investors’ none-of-the-above attitude as a contrarian “buy” signal for stocks turned out to have jumped in too early.

Buyers who jumped into stocks at the start of October enjoyed an excellent month that could be the start of a long rally. But if the history of those three months repeats, it could turn out to be the calm between two storms.

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