Investors are hungrier for stock funds, but finicky

Investors are giving stock mutual funds another shot after getting burned during the financial crisis, but they're being choosy.
BY STAN CHOE Published: October 5, 2013
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Investors are giving stock mutual funds another shot after getting burned during the financial crisis, but they're being choosy.

From January through August — eight straight months — investors put more money into stock funds than they pulled out, according to the most recent data from the Investment Company Institute. They invested a net total of $106.5 billion, which is more than IBM's revenue for all of last year. It marks a sharp turnaround: Investors had yanked more from stock funds than they put in for 19 of the 20 preceding months, withdrawing a net total of $320.4 billion.

Some analysts earlier this year were predicting a “Great Rotation,” in which investors would migrate en masse from bonds into stocks. The thinking was that investors would get tired of low bond interest rates and would fear that their bond funds would lose money when interest rates rose.

Instead, they'd switch over to stocks, which have continued to surge. But memories of the painful losses suffered by stock funds in 2008 and early 2009 linger. So although investor interest in stock funds has increased in 2013, it's been only for certain kinds.

Some of that sting has investors looking abroad. Of the money taken in by stock funds this year, 86 percent went to world stock mutual funds. They're drawing interest in part because Japan has been one of the world's best markets.

Expectations for its economy have improved following a big push of stimulus by the Bank of Japan, and the Nikkei 225 index's 36.2 percent rise this year is nearly double the 17.7 percent gain for the Standard & Poor's 500 index. Europe's economy has also finally begun growing again, following six quarters of contraction.

Among U.S. stock mutual funds, investors have been more discriminating. A look at which types have been winners and losers:

Value funds

These funds aren't afraid to buy a stock when it's down. Value managers look for stocks in which they believe the market's expectations are too low. That may be due to an earnings setback or some other challenge. After buying a cheap stock, value funds are content to wait for the price to rise as expectations reset over time.

These funds have been popular: Large-cap value stock funds have attracted $7 billion in net new investment through the first eight months of 2013, according to Morningstar.

One big attraction is the dividends that value stock funds tend to pay, says Michael Rawson, fund analyst at Morningstar. Low bond yields meant many investors turned to dividend stocks for income, particularly early in the year, Rawson says.

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