Up until this month, analysts at Morningstar have noticed a divergence between individual investors, who have been gung ho for bonds, and money managers, who have mostly been bullish on equities—and bearish on bonds. And while Morningstar analyst Kevin McDevitt says it may be too early to tell, recent fund flow data could be an indication that retail investors are warming up to equities, well, sort of. Put another way: the selling of equity funds is slowing. Cash-like instruments are still popular.
They have missed a nice rally: The Dow is up 10 percent, year to date; the S&P Midcap index is up by more than 22 percent. In short, the stock market has been the place to be since the lows of March 2009. Retail investors have been on the sidelines since 2009, as far as equities are concerned, but recently Schwab, the bellwether indicator for retail sentiment, has seen trading activity jump by double digits two months in a row compared to similar periods in 2009. Once again, retail investors are arriving late to a stock party in full swing.
As for mutual funds, the data show that investors are retreating from bond funds; flows into taxable-bond funds slowed to just $6 billion in November, the weakest month for the sector since May, compared with $21 billion in October, according to Morningstar’s data. In November, bond investors were spooked by rising interest rates, McDevitt said.
Meanwhile, municipal-bond funds saw outflows of $7.6 billion during the month, as investors have become more concerned about the validity of municipal finances, McDevitt said. The sector has not seen outflows like this since October 2008, when investors redeemed $8 billion during the credit crisis.
Although equity outflows continued in November, they were not as negative as they have been. During the month, $4 billion was pulled from U.S. stock funds, compared to $6.3 billion in redemptions in October and $16.3 billion in September. Meanwhile, money market funds took in $24.7 billion, making November the best month since January 2009. According to McDevitt, this is the default investment for those who want to keep their money on the sidelines.
But Bart Schannep, president of Schannep Investment Advisors, said clients are now more interested in stock funds than bond funds. They are starting to wake up and recognize the opportunities they’ve missed in the equities market. Year to date, the S&P 500 is up 12.94 percent as of Dec. 15. “Fear is the stronger emotion,” he said. “I’m seeing greed working back up again.”
If we’re going by Morningstar’s “Buy the Unloved” strategy, which has been to invest in asset classes with the most outflows and get out of those with the most inflows, now might be a good time to invest in equities. McDevitt believes there’s a potential opportunity in the large-cap growth and large-cap value stocks, which have seen outflows of $46.2 billion and $15.5 billion this year, respectively. While it all depends on the individual investor situation, these areas are something to think about if the investor is more inclined to be a contrarian, he said. TrimTabs Investment Research, an independent research service lead by Charles Biderman, uses a similar strategy of shorting certain stocks when others are buying them.
Schannep said he’s seeing a fundamental shift, where clients are now more interested in making money. “I’m seeing more appetite for wealth building and less appetite for protection.”
However, Mike Robertson, CEO of Robertson Wealth Management, said clients are still really nervous, as they continue to sit on the sidelines in money market funds and Treasuries. “I’ve never heard more people say, ‘I can’t afford to lose,’” he said. “A lot of them are just biting their lip.”
While people aren’t resisting the opportunity to go into something new if it makes sense to them, they aren’t initiating the opportunity either, Robertson said.
“They’ll go along if you invite them,” he said.