How to Analyze Fund Flows

Using Fund Flows to Gain an Edge

Financial Abundance In A Sea Of Money
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The majority of investors purchase mutual funds and exchange-traded funds ("ETFs") to gain exposure to domestic and international equities. On a monthly or quarterly basis, these funds must report the amount of money flowing in or out of their accounts. These fund flow reports can provide valuable information for investors that know how to read them.

In this article, we'll explore what fund flows are and how investors can utilize them in order to gain an edge when investing domestically or internationally.

What is Fund Flow?

Fund flows show these cash inflows and outflows across various financial assets on a monthly or quarterly basis. Net inflows create excess cash for fund managers to invest that tend to create demand for stocks and bonds in their sector of choice. Conversely, net outflows reduce excess cash for fund managers and tend to result in lower demand for stocks and bonds.

As a result, investors can use fund flow information to determine where capital is being invested in terms of asset class or geography. The overall growth in net fund flows can also provide insight into whether or not investors are putting money into the market or taking it out, which helps in painting an overall macroeconomic picture of what's happening.

Investors can find fund flow data within individual fund filings or via financial data aggregators like Morningstar that provide both data and commentary. Every year, Morningstar issues an Annual Global Flows Report that outlines where global funds are being allocated for each year that's highly watched by international investors (See: 2012 Annual Global Flows Report).

Analyzing Fund Flows

Fund flows can provide investors with a lot of information about where capital is being committed around the world. In particular, Morningstar's annual commentary can provide unique insights to help support a global macroeconomic investment thesis, while active traders can look towards more real-time data to drive their intraday areas of focus.

Here are some ways to utilize the information:

  • Fixed Income. Fund flows into fixed income securities suggest a lack of confidence in equities and a flight to safety in most cases. For instance, net fund inflows into U.S. fixed income securities were clearly observed throughout the global economic crisis.
  • Asset Classes. Fund flows into certain asset classes may carry different connotations. For instance, net fund outflows from global equities into U.S. large cap value stocks could suggest that U.S. equities are relatively undervalued.
  • Portfolio Mix. Fund flows into certain asset classes may also provide insight into portfolio mix. For instance, European investors primarily invested in bonds in 2012 with a small portion of their portfolios dedicated to emerging market equities.
  • Finding Funds. Fund flow data shows which funds are most popular among investors and which are falling out of favor. For example, BNP Paribas had strong net fund outflows during 2012, suggesting that investors may want to stay away.

    Putting It Into Context

    Fund flows can be used to identify past investment trends, but looking towards the future is the key to profit for investors. Since money managers tend to be behind the curve - that is, they tend to underperform the broad market indices, investors should pay careful attention to the patterns that emerge from fund flow data rather than the readings themselves.

    For example, suppose that U.S. fixed income has experienced a significant jump in net fund inflows over the past few months. But now, these net fund inflows have begun slowing and are showing signs of being top-heavy. Investors looking at this data may want to consider selling their U.S. fixed income ahead of fund selling that could precipitate downside.

    In general, global investors should use fund flow data to paint a top-level picture of what's happening on a global scale and use that information to build a more specific investment thesis. The data is particularly useful for global macroeconomic investors, but other investors can be sure to find some insight in fund flow data for use in their own trading and investing.

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