Why I Can’t Put Away My Bear Market Worries #3: Money Flows That Look Like A Bounce And Not Like A Rally

Rallies share one very important pattern. In a rally more investors and traders want to jump in as prices rise. They’re convinced that rising prices mean that prices will climb even more in the future and so they buy, driving prices higher.

Bounces follow a different pattern. Investors and traders buy, often in a hand over fist fashion that spikes prices, but once prices reach a particular level market participants start to sell. They aren’t convinced that prices will climb farther and instead worry that the bargains are gone and that they’ve seen the bulk–and maybe all–of the gains.

On Wednesday, January 16, Don Kaufman at TheoTrade ran a chart of the top ten ETF cash flows in and cash flows out for 2019 through January 15. And the pattern is certainly more indicative of a bounce than of a rally.

The top five outflows belonged to the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (WOO) at $2.46 billion, Vanguard Real Estate ETF (VNQ) at $1.29 billion, Vanguard Information Technology ETF (VGT) at $1.25 billion, Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLY) at $1.24 billion and Vanguard Value ETF (VLV) $1.22 billion. ETFs invested in the NASDAQ 100, in the Russell 2000, the health care sector, and the financial sector all made it into the top 10.

Money flowed into the iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) at $3.74 billion, iShares Short Treasury ETF (SHV), iShares Core MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (IEMG) at $3.54 billion, iShares 1-3 Year Treasury Bond ETF (SHY) at $2.27 billion, and Vanguard Total Market ETF (VTI) at $2.03 billion. ETFs invested in 20-year-plus Treasuries, 7-10-year Treasuries, and emerging markets also made it into the top 10.

What’s intriguing–and worrying if you’d like the bounce to become a rally–is the money flowing out of the S&P, the NASDAQ, healthcare and financials–all sectors that had done well in the bounce–and into Treasury bond funds and emerging markets. The pattern would indicate that investors are looking to move to safety–in Treasuries–rather than follow stock prices upward–or that they’re interested in putting cash into a lagging sector–emerging market ETFs–rather than follow U.S. stock prices upward. The pattern isn’t so pronounced as to make me say “Run for the hills” since money did flow into the S&P following IVV and the Vanguard Total Market ETF. But these cash flows aren’t as strong an endorsement of the duration of the recent upward trend as I would like given the very strong flows into Treasuries.