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Wall Street’s current jubilant narrative is that a rush into stocks by small investors has sparked a great rotation’ out of bonds and into equities that will power the bull market to new heights.
That sounds good, but there’s a snag: The evidence for this is a few weeks of bullish fund flows that are hardly unusual for January.
Late-stage bull markets are typically marked by an influx of small investors coming late to the party - such as when your waiter starts giving you stock tips. For that to happen you need a good story. The 'great rotation,' with its monumental tone, is the perfect narrative to make you feel like you're missing out.
Even if something approaching a great rotation’ has begun, it is not necessarily bullish for markets. Those who think they are coming early to the party may actually be arriving late.
Investors pumped $20.7 billion into stocks in the first four weeks of the year, the strongest four-week run since April 2000, according to Lipper. But that pales in comparison with the $410 billion yanked from those funds since the start of 2008.
“I’m not sure you want to take a couple of weeks and extrapolate it into whatever trend you want,” said Tobias Levkovich, chief US equity strategist at Citigroup. “We have had instances where equity flows have picked up in the last two, three, four years when markets have picked up. They've generally not been signals of a continuation of that trend.”
The S&P 500 rose five per cent in January, its best month since October 2011 and its best January since 1997, driving speculation that retail investors were flooding back into the stock market.
Heading into another busy week of earnings, the equity market is knocking on the door of all-time highs due to positive sentiment in stocks, and that can't be ignored entirely. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index ended the week about four per cent from an all-time high touched in October 2007.
Next week will bring results from insurers Allstate and The Hartford, as well as from Walt Disney, Coca-Cola Enterprises and Visa.
But a comparison of flows in January, a seasonal strong month for the stock market, shows that this January, while strong, is not that unusual. In January 2011 investors moved $23.9 billion into stock funds and $28.6 billion in 2006, but neither foreshadowed massive inflows the rest of that year. Furthermore, in 2006 the market gained more than 13 per cent while in 2011 it was flat.
Strong inflows in January can happen for a number of reasons. There were a lot of special dividends issued in December that need reinvesting, and some of the funds raised in December tax-selling also find their way back into the market.
During the height of the tech bubble in 2000, when retail investors were really embracing stocks, a staggering $42.7 billion flowed into equities in January of that year, double the amount that flowed in this January. That didn't end well, as stocks peaked in March of that year before dropping over the next two-plus years.
Mom and pop still wary
Arguing against a great rotation’ is not necessarily a bearish argument against stocks. The stock market has done well since the crisis. Despite the huge outflows, the S&P 500 has risen more than 120 per cent since March 2009 on a slowly improving economy and corporate earnings.