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Investors running from stocks like it's 2011 again

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
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Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Investors pulled the most money out of stocks last week in two and a half years, as part of a trend that may signal more than just short-term panic selling.

Mutual funds focused on equities lost $28 billion in the week ended Feb 5, according to Citigroup and EPFR Global. It was the worst weekly performance since August 2011, when Wall Street was weathering the debt ceiling impasse in Washington.

Investors have growth skittish about stocks in 2014 as worries mount over the strength of the U.S. and global economy and the impact that changes in Federal Reserve policy will have.

At the base of the money shift, though, is also a general move by deep-pocketed institutional investors.

(Read more: Macro hedge funds burned in January)

Last year's massive stock market surge, which saw the S&P 500 large-cap stock index gain 29 percent and smaller company shares gain even more, has generated some old-fashioned portfolio rebalancing. After such a big move, it would only be natural for investors to start shifting money around as allocations get out of whack with too much allocation to risk.

"A divergence between institutional and retail activity has surfaced," Marc Irizarry and a team of equity analysts at Goldman Sachs said in a research note.

The trend began in the fourth quarter and manifested itself in three ways, Irizarry said: "A broader definition of equity" that focused away from traditional stock investments and into absolute return fund and natural resource funds; portfolio rebalancing to get stocks and bonds toward more traditional asset allocations; and what he called "defeasance," or setting aside cash to retire debt.

U.S. companies have accumulated a post-recession high of $13.4 trillion in debt, according to the most recent Fed data, with upward of $1 trillion or more maturing in each of the next five years.

(Read more: Short-seller Chanos falls in '13)

"These points run counter to the view of a 'rotation' toward equities and instead favor non-traditional bonds, alts, and innovative equity product," the Goldman team said.

Indeed, the "Great Rotation" theme of a massive money outflow from bonds into equities looks to have been short-lived. Fixed income funds have done well in 2014 as investors start to unwind the equity surge during 2013's market rally, taking in $15 billion in the past week alone.

How this augurs for the market's future is hard to determine, though the momentum in the first six weeks of trading is certainly on the bearish side.

The big move in money could be positive from a contrarian standpoint, according to TrimTabs, a market data and analysis firm that believes the shift of 24.1 percent of assets under management from exchange-traded funds that use leverage to make bullish bets is a good sign for the market.

(Read more: 'Hot money' ride could be getting put on ice)

"ETF investors tend to be poor market timers, so their pessimism augurs well for stock prices over the short term," TrimTabs CEO David Santschi said in his weekly report.

Most investors aren't feeling as optimistic.

Bearish sentiment on the American Association of Individual Investors—primarily the retail side—hit a six-month high last week.

Strategists at S&P Capital IQ warned Monday that momentum indicators and the relatively measured pace of the recent market pullback indicate "the possibility of something worse" than a garden-variety selloff.

(Read more: World's most successful hedge fund manager is...)

Markets that fall more than 5 percent rapidly (nine days or less) or especially slowly (40 days or more) rarely turn into bear markets, Sam Stovall, S&P's chief equity strategist, said in a note. The current pullback, he said, falls in the "sweet spot" of between 20 and 29 days that has been a better indicator of a more thoughtful move that can lead to worse things ahead.

"We are firm believers that the S&P 500 is long overdue for a decline of 10 percent or more," Stovall said.

The good news: He believes the market remains on a longer-term bullish course, and a steep pullback would provide an excellent buying opportunity.

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxCNBCcom.

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