Volatile rotation puts investors on edge

Reading the value ETFs

Investors give and investors take away, and nowhere has that been more true lately than in value stocks.

Last year's 30-percent stock market rally was powered largely by value stocks—those with low valuations that investors believe can jump higher—that looked like they had nowhere to go but up.

Almost on a dime, however, that belief has changed in recent trading days, with investors looking to put their money elsewhere as growth stocks—health care and biotech are two of the current hot hands—gain preference.

Trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
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While only time will tell whether the selloff is short or long term, the recent moves certainly have caught the eye of market pros.

"Everyone's getting rid of the momentum companies. They're nervous (over whether this is) a bubble gain," said Nadav Baum, executive vice president at BPU Investment Management in Pittsburgh. "The reality is there are some great growth companies that are down, that have better rates of return. Those are good for the long-term investors once prices start to drop the way they have."

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Baum said there are multiple factors at play in the investor refocus.

One is the large number of initial public offerings coming online. Some 21 deals are expected to price this week, led by Ally Financial, which is likely to generate $2.52 billion, according to Ipreo Capital Markets.

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"There's a lot of money chasing these IPOs," Baum said. "People are selling (momentum stocks). They made some money on them, they got gains and they're saying, 'Let's see if we can make some money once these IPO companies go on the market.'"

Baum said he still thinks the market is healthy though it is undergoing a shift in investor preference. Indeed, Tuesday morning's trade recovered at least some of the losses from the previous two days, and the First Trust funds were positive.

"If you don't have the stomach for volatility, you shouldn't be a stock market investor," Baum said. "We had a free ride last year with volatility. Now it's back."

A snapshot of just how severe investor strategy could be shifting appeared to come in one family of funds. First Trust has a group of exchange-traded funds that focuses on large-cap and small-cap value and alpha generation, and they saw stunning outflows Monday.

The First Trust Large Cap Value Opportunities Alpha fund lost 17.4 percent of its $940.3 million in assets for the day, according to data from ETF.com.

A First Trust official, though, said it was simply a matter of a rebalancing, which ETFs do as they reach certain price or composition levels to meet the fund's goals.

The funds have been popular for most of the past year and have performed well. The Large Cap Alpha is up 23.5 percent over the past 12 months, outdistancing the nearly 19 percent return from the . For the year, the fund has net inflows of $20.5 million.

First Trust remains the eighth-largest ETF issuer by assets under management, with $26.8 billion after losing 2.8 percent total in Monday's drop.

NOTE: This story was updated to reflect new information on the one-day outflows of the First Trust funds.

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox.