Here's Floyd Norris of The New York Times last week:
The love affair of American investors with the stock market appears to have ended.
The year now ending will be the fourth consecutive year in which mutual funds that invest primarily in American stocks experienced net outflows of funds, meaning that investors as a group withdrew more money than they put in.
He's partly right. Investors have been pulling money out of stock mutual funds, especially those that only invest in the United States. No denying that.
But this is an incomplete way of looking at things, and not nearly enough to conclude that we've lost our love of investing.
Norris and many, many others look at mutual fund flows to gauge investor sentiment while ignoring ETF flows. Not a single mention. The craziness of this is that ETFs are quickly replacing inconvenient and expensive mutual funds. Focusing entirely on mutual fund flows and concluding investors have given up is like focusing on cassette tape sales and concluding no one listens to music anymore.
Investors have pulled $39 billion out of stock-based mutual funds since 2009. But over that same period, stock-based ETFs saw $71 billion in inflows, according to data from ICI and the National Stock Exchange. Those inflows along with a markets rebound has doubled the size of stock-based ETF assets.
This is a trend that's been going on for more than a decade. "Since the introduction of the first Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) in the U.S. in 1993," write Ilan Guedj and Jennifer Huang of the University of Texas, "ETFs have captured most of the growth in index mutual funds and now constitute about 40% of the index fund market share."
To be fair to Norris, he goes out of his way to focus on domestic stock funds, while duly noting that the exodus was "partly offset by money flowing into foreign stock funds," and that "investors seem more willing to trust in overseas markets."
But this is still incomplete. Since 2008, $260 billion has flowed out of domestic stock mutual funds, yet nearly $100 billion has been added to domestic stock ETFs.
The net result is still a decline for domestic stocks. But this, too, doesn't tell the whole story. Nearly half of all revenue generated by S&P 500 companies now comes from overseas, up from 32% in 2001. The term "domestic stock" has lost relevance. Regardless of whether you invest in companies based in the U.S. or overseas, what you're increasingly getting is a global market. Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) generates 85% of its revenue overseas; ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , 66%; Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) , 73%. Who in their right mind considers these domestic companies? If investors are giving more weight to overseas-based stocks, it's because there's more opportunity, which shouldn't be confused with better opportunity.
Norris goes on to point out that investors throwing in the towel tends to signal the rise of new bull markets. He and I agree on that. I just don't think his numbers prove his point.