We've all heard this expression, to refer to stocks clawing gains to new highs amidst a market of doubters. It's contrarian logic. Buy when others are selling, when skies are at their most foreboding.
Recent reports have highlighted significant equity mutual fund and ETF outflows of both domestic and international equities, suggesting at least retail investors may be worried indeed. An article in Barron's indicates that fund outflows from U. S. equities in July deepened to a six-year low. International stocks followed suit. ISI Evercore Research reports that fund flows out of equity mutual fund and ETFs last week alone totalled $6 billion, bringing the year to date fund flows to negative $95 billion, a near record.
Now, to those of the contrarian view, the data argues for bullishness with the market soon to drive ever higher. Well, maybe. While markets have been known to climb a wall of worry, just as often investor uneasiness plays out as expected in future events. The herd isn't always wrong.
Take a look at the chart above. It shows the historical pattern of U.S. domestic equity fund flows paired with the S&P 500. While retail investors were seemingly caught off guard in the 2001 tech wreck, only to pull money from equity funds as the market fell to new lows, the stock market crash of 2008 paints a very different picture. While markets pushed ever higher throughout the fall of 2007, equities began to see negative fund flows as early as April, with money being pulled out of the market in increasing volume throughout the year, before the market began to topple in early 2008.
Today's negative fund flows from US domestic and international equities could be just the contrary signal that bulls are looking for, or this time, the herd could simply be right.