March Flash Flows: A Lot of Crooked Numbers

By:

Head of SPDR Americas Research

With rates rising, bonds posted their worst quarterly return (-6%) since 1980. Stocks didn’t do any better: even after the March rally, Q1 returns were -5%. ETFs, however, continue to take in assets, side-stepping the current market volatility, as fund flows in March were the third-most ever, totaling $93 billion.

In baseball, the phrase “a crooked number” refers to a number other than zero or one being scored. When a team scores two or more runs in an inning, it is said that they have “hung a crooked number” on the scoreboard — and the pitcher.

This isn’t a good thing if you are that pitcher, or fan of the team. A few innings in a row with crooked numbers going up on the scoreboard and the pitcher hits the showers early and fans might head for the exit.

Global capital markets definitely had a crooked number hung on them this quarter. Global equities fell 14% through the first 9 weeks of the quarter, only to rally in the past three weeks — trimming the decline for the quarter to -5.3%.1

Stocks fell the same amount as bonds in the quarter. Yet, given bonds shouldn’t have such severe declines, it felt like bond portfolios had the same type of crooked number hung on them as the Washington Nationals did in the eighth inning of a recent spring training game. The Nats gave up 15 runs in that one inning.

Nevertheless, flow totals illustrate that investors remain undeterred and continue to allocate capital at elevated rates. Yet, there were areas where there was more conviction than others — a by-product of our uncertain market environment.

Another $90 Billion Here, Another $90 Billion There

Fund flows in March were the third-most ever, totaling $93 billion. This is now the fifth time in the last two years where flows have been above the $90 billion mark. The flows in March were also 50% of the overall $195 billion first quarter flows.

The most conviction was expressed within equities, and namely US equities. Equity funds took in 70% of all flows in March, with US exposures taking in 88% of all equity flows. The latter is well above the market share of assets, as US funds only comprise 78% equity assets. Inexplicably, emerging market (EM) funds posted the second-most flows (+$6 billion) last month out of any geographic region — and their sixth-most all time. The flows on the quarter were also the second-most as a percent of start-of-year assets.

Now, given the fungibility and flexibility of the ETF structure, some of these flows could be tied to short positions as well as bearish option trades — a reason why flows analysis needs to be multi-dimensional. And we have seen short interest rise on the segment in 2022 as the market has fallen and remained under pressure given the Russia-Ukraine War as well as the downbeat performance from China (-14.2%).

Asset Class Flows

Asset Class Flows

While those equity figures are sizable, there were other areas that went parabolic. With volatility elevated, inflation rising, and commodities posting their best quarter since 1990,2 broad-commodity and gold ETFs each took in their third-most ever for a month (+$2 and +$6 billion, respectively).

For broad-commodity exposures, as shown below, this pushed their trailing three – month fund flow total to its highest ever. Gold, while not at all-time highs, has its trailing three-month flow figures sitting at their eighth highest. Given the inflation and volatility dynamics present in the market, these figures are likely to remain elevated.

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Footnotes

1Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of March 31, 2022 based on the return of MSCI ACWI Index.
2Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of March 31, 2022 based on the return of Bloomberg Commodity Index.
3Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of March 31, 2022. Based on the return of the Energy sector returns of the S&P 500 Index.
4Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of March 31, 2022. Based on the return of the Bloomberg US Treasury Inflation Index and the Bloomberg US Treasury Index.
5Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of March 31, 2022. Based on the return of the ICE BoFAML US High Yield Index and the S&P/LSTA Leveraged Loan Index.
6Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of March 31, 2022. Based on the return of the ICE BoFAML US High Yield Index.
7FactSet as of March 31, 2022 based on the S&P 500 Index.

Glossary

Bloomberg US Treasury Inflation-Linked Bond Index
Measures the performance of the US Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) market.

Bloomberg US Treasury Index
Measures US dollar-denominated, fixed-rate, nominal debt issued by the US Treasury.

CBOE VIX Index
A measure of implied market volatility on the S&P 500.

ICE BofA US High Yield Index
The ICE BofA US High Yield Index tracks the performance of US dollar denominated below investment grade corporate debt publicly issued in the US domestic market.

MOVE Index
A measure of bond market implied volaitlity.

MSCI ACWI Index
A market-capitalization-weighted stock market index that measures the stock performance of the companies in developed and emerging markets.

MSCI Emerging Markets Index
A market-capitalization-weighted stock market index that measures the stock performance of the companies in emerging markets.

S&P 500® Index
A market-capitalization-weighted stock market index that measures the stock performance of the 500 largest publicly traded companies in the United States.

S&P/LSTA Leverage Loan Index
A market value-weighted index designed to measure the performance of the U.S. leveraged loan market based upon market weightings, spreads and interest payments.

Originally Posted April 6, 2022 – March Flash Flows: A Lot of Crooked Numbers

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