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Flows Fluctuate in Early ‘14

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Retail investors committed about $1.6 billion to stock mutual funds in early May, continuing a trend that has been in place for the past few months. Meanwhile, taxable bond funds attracted a robust level of inflows for the ninth week in a row.

Experts say it’s a tricky but generally positive time to look at global equities. “The recovery in the global economy is real, with the U.S. economy likely to surprise on the upside moving forward,” said David Eiswert, portfolio manager for Global Focused Growth Equity Strategy at T. Rowe Price.

“Further growth in economic activity is needed to drive the next stage of the equity-market cycle, and we believe the foundations are in place for this scenario,” Eiswert explained in an April report.

“As we move on from the ‘responsive’ phase of the cycle and into the ‘improvement’ phase, the drivers of equity returns will be different and arguably more complex. These remain exciting times for global equity investors, however,” he stressed.

U.S. retail and institutional investors added $4.2 billion into stock funds (including ETFs) in late April, according to Lipper, with mutual funds gaining about $1.6 billion of these assets. They also put about $710 million in taxable bond funds, the weakest level in seven weeks. Emerging markets stock funds had $352 million of inflows.

In terms of outflows in the final week of April, high-yield bond funds experienced the loss of some $630 million of assets; this is their biggest outflow level since February, Lipper says. Investment-grade bond funds had about $74 million in outflows, while floating-rate loan funds posted $663.7 million in outflows, their biggest outflows since August 2011.

Funds focused on U.S. Treasuries attracted $440 million in inflows, and funds with inflation-protected bonds drew $174 million for their second-straight week of improving demand.

To add their money to equity products and a select group of bond funds, investors took $5.5 billion out of money market funds.

Investors added nearly $9 billion to stock funds and moved funds out of U.S. Treasuries, for the week ending April 9. A week earlier, they had put close to $5.5 billion into stock funds, as was as almost $4 billion into taxable bond products.

In early April, when market volatility rose, investors chose to take more than $225 million out of commodities and precious-metals funds. They also withdrew more than $11 billion from money markets. At the same time, as issues plagued Ukraine and Russia, emerging-market funds drew over $2.2 billion in inflows.

Judging from such behavior, investors seemed confident the trends of fund performance in the first quarter of 2014 would continue through at least the second quarter. During the first three months of 2014, equity funds were just able to post their seventh consecutive quarter of positive returns.

Q1 Performance

Overall, equity funds improved 1.47% on average, with sector-equity funds rising 4.05%, according to Lipper. U.S. diversified-equity funds increased 1.33%, while world-equity funds squeezed out an improvement of 0.40%).

The strongest performers were commodities-agriculture funds (16.15%) and precious-metals equity funds (12.21%). Funds that weakened most in the period included dedicated short-bias funds (–4.56%), Japanese funds (–4.45%) and China region funds (–4.40%).

After a strong run-up in 2013, especially in the fourth quarter, investors “cautiously continued to bid up the market in first quarter 2014,” says Tom Roseen, head of research services for Denver-based Lipper.

“While investors began to take some of their hard-won profits off the table during first quarter 2014—adding volatility to the market, they continued to inject net new money into the fund industry … to the tune of $41.5 billion,” Roseen explained in his latest quarterly report.

Investors were “forced to weigh the conflicting economic news,” he adds. “While much of the news showed an economic softening attributed to the strong winter storms in the U.S. this year, others showed a picture of a ‘plow-horse’ economy, continuing to amble along.”

During Q1, 78 of Lipper’s 95 equity and mixed-equity fund classifications posted positive returns. The period saw the dollar rise modestly against the euro, though it declined against the pound and the yen. Commodity prices improved, with gold rising about 7% to end the quarter at $1,283.40 an ounce.

Bond Business

Municipal bonds “turned a corner as buyers came back to the asset class,” says Jeff Tjornehoj, head of Lipper Americas Research.

Lipper’s high-yield muni debt funds group, for instance, posted returns of 5.25% to become Q1′s best-performing bond group. “Munis would not have risen so high if Treasuries hadn’t rallied. Yields on the 10-year note settled down from 3.04% on Dec. 31, 2013, to 2.73% on March 31, 2014, to help general U.S. Treasury funds gain 3.63% for the quarter,” Tjornehoj explained.

High-yield funds improved 2.61%, putting their performance below that of investment-grade returns but slightly ahead of international income funds (2.32%). Emerging-markets hard currency debt funds gained 2.44% during the period.

Overall, bond funds “started the year with a bang and helped investors put a disappointing 2013 behind them,” the Lipper fixed-income expert shared.

“The market’s most widely watched barometer, the Barclays Aggregate Index, gained 1.84% for Q1’14, after losing 2% for 2013. Concern early in the quarter about a slowing U.S. economy, along with a flight to quality in the face of emerging-market volatility, helped drive yields lower on U.S. Treasuries,” added Tjornehoj. “The Barclays U.S. Three-Year Government Bond Index ended the quarter up 0.14%.”

According to Steve Huber, manager of the T. Rowe Price Strategic Income Fund, today’s bond markets “are more global, and non-U.S. markets offer opportunities for higher inflation-adjusted yields, he shared in a recent report. Thus, it makes sense to search globally, “across regions, credit sectors, currencies, interest-rate markets and individual securities—for yield, diversification and risk management.”