Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Retail and big-money crowd heading in opposite directions

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Mom-and-pop retail investors are zigging and big-money institutions are zagging as the market tries to figure out which way things are going after a record-busting year on Wall Street.

While the overall market mood is solidly bullish, recent fund flows show almost diametrically opposed views as to where money will be best treated.

Retail investors have been betting mostly on international rather than U.S. stocks, with a focus on small-and multi-cap funds.

Institutional investors, on the other hand, have been focusing on domestic stocks, with a tilt toward larger companies.

The sentiment of institutional versus retail is best gauged by examining dollar fund flows to exchange-traded against mutual funds. Market analysts at RBC Capital Markets believe the flows paint an interesting and complex picture.

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"Looking at the breakdown of the data, the majority of these flows appear to be into index products as opposed to some type of style or sector vehicle," RBC's Jonathan Golub and Manesh Bangard said in a breakdown for clients. "We view this as a sign of confidence in the markets among professional investors and traders."

So who's right? Only time will tell, but history at least suggests that the institutional money has better access to information and thus usually gauges market movement more accurately.

Equity mutual funds in general have seen strong inflows this year to the $15 trillion mutual fund space for the first time since the financial crisis. Retail investors have committed about $41 billion to domestic funds but $71 billion to international.

Conversely, the $1.6 trillion exchange-traded space has seen $52.4 billion head to U.S. equity funds, while just $36.5 billion has made it to international.

The divergence goes beyond broad allocation.

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Mutual fund investors have been bearish on technology, siphoning more than $1 billion from those funds during 2013, while the ETF crowd has been bullish, pouring in $5.2 billion.

Technology as measured by the Nasdaq index has outperformed the with a 35 percent return. The SPDR Techology Sector ETF actually has underperformed year to date (up 22.4 percent versus 29 percent for the S&P 500) but is ahead this quarter (8.7 percent versus 7.7 percent).

Barclays' 2014 forecast

Investor sentiment broadly is positive on both an institutional and retail basis.

The American Association of Individual Investors' most recent survey has bulls outpacing bears 43 percent to 30 percent. The Investors Intelligence survey—a poll of professional newsletter authors—has the bulls ahead 57 percent to 14 percent. Investors Intel bullishness is at a 2013 high, while bearishness is at a low, helping confirm the idea that institutional investors are more bullish than retail.

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Both views, however, could face some challenge in the near term, according to data analysts at TrimTabs.

The research firm considers significant fund inflows contrarian indicators, so it sees the buying in U.S. equity ETFs as possibly overdone. It also said money is coming out of leveraged ETFs that bet against the market—another contrarian negative signal.

TrimTabs reported that companies are pouring shares onto the market, with the supply likely to dilute prices. Companies are expected to offer $6.2 billion of new float in the next week, up from $4.3 billion the previous week.

"Our supply indicators are much less favorable than our demand indicators," TrimTabs CEO David Santschi said in his weekly analysis. "We expect new offerings to be far heavier in the next two weeks, which could make it tougher for stock prices to advance."

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