Institutions Are Selling To Retail Investors At An Unprecedented Pace

According to the latest EPFR fund flow data compiled by BofA's Michael Hartnett, the great "institutional to equity" stockholding rotation is accelerating, with another $8.8bn allocated to equities, more than all of it from retail investors, and another $5.8bn going into bonds, offset by a $0.4bn outflows from gold.

Ironically, the one place where active investors are still putting back at least a token fight against the robots is in bonds, where $3.6bn went into active bond funds this week vs "only" $2.2bn into passive bond ETFs. And, as Hartnett writes, active AUM is fighting back, if only in bondland, where there have been $1.04tn in active bond inflows past 10 yrs vs. $0.93tn into passives...

.... a very different trend from what has taken place in stocks in the past decade (Chart 2) where institutions are delighted to dump to "low-cost" passive alternatives.

Of course, this particular "great rotation" is no surprise: earlier this week we were surprised to report that on its conference call, Morgan Stanley reported that the cash levels in its clients (retail) accounts, is the lowest it has ever been:

... we've been talking about our deposit deployment strategy for quite sometime, and we've been investing excess liquidity into our loan product over the last several years. In the beginning of the year, we told you that, that trend would come to an end. We did see that this year. It happened a bit sooner than we anticipated as we saw more cash go into the markets, particularly the equity markets, as those markets rose around the world. And we've seen cash in our clients' accounts at its lowest level.

Meanwhile we also showed that institutions continue to sell at a torrid pace, and as BofA reported, in the last week when the S&P hit new all time highs, its clients were net sellers of US equities for the fourth consecutive week. Large net sales of single stocks offset small net buys of ETFs, leading to overall net sales of $1.7bn. Net sales were led by institutional clients, who have sold US equities for the last eight weeks; hedge funds were also (small) net sellers for the sixth straight week.

The best way to visualize the institutional selling? This chart from BofA:


Who bought? Why retail's favorite investment product of course, ETFs: "Private clients were net buyers, which has been the case in four of the last five weeks, but with buying almost entirely via ETFs. Clients sold stocks across all three size segments last week."

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Going back to the latest fund flows report, BofA reports that for all the talk about an imminent surge in interest rates, yields are still winning: $6.3bn inflows to IG+HY+EM bonds this week; investors continue to discount low-rate environment. This happens as the 5s30s yield curve (88bps) is the flattest since GFC, a fact Mike Hartnett finds "remarkable given the Philly Fed Employment outlook hit a 50-year high today." Just as surprisng: bond funds have now seen 31 straight weeks of inflows, as investors continue to overwhelmingly pick yield over capital appreciation.

Across the globe, Japan is losing (for a change), with a record $4.4bn outflows from Japan equities (86% ETF redemptions, possibly via BoJ); which is odd considering the Nikkei hasn't had a down day in the past 14 days: the longest stretch of gains on record! It likely won't last however, with BofA predicting that after Sunday's election "we expect Japan TOPIX to revert to tracking US bond yields (Chart 4)."

In the US, where the S&P just hit all time highs, there was a solid week of $7.5bn US in equity inflows.

Some more bad news for professional investors:  while there have been inflows in 17 of past 19 weeks, all of this continues to go into passive funds, with $11.1bn flowing into ETFs offset by another $2.2bn outflow from mutual funds.

As a result, Hartnett concludes that robots continue to win, especially since this week's launch of the 1st ETF in which stocks will be selected by robots (AIEQ) comes as tech funds see biggest inflows in 38 weeks; AIEQ outperforming SPX thus far.

As for the retail equity euphoria, nowehere is it more obvious than in BofA's high net worth client tracking where YTD flows show a decisive cyclical shift by private clients, who are buying bank loans, financials, EAFE ETFs, while shunning quality, utilities, large caps & dividends (Chart 6). And as the next chart shows, equity allocations among BofA private clients are just shy of all time highs, and well above where they were during the last market peak.

BofA's takeaways:

  • Alpha in bonds; inflows to active funds continue to outstrip passive
  • AIpha in stocks: first ETF where stocks selected by robots launches amidst biggest Tech inflows in 38 weeks
  • Tick-tock: risk-on equity & bond flows push B&B indicator up to 7.6

To which we can only add: the rush by institutions to dump their equity holdings to retail investors - courtesy of "low-cost" ETFs - has never been greater. The only question now is when does the Fed pull the trapdoor, as it always does just when the market peaks...