Investors are fleeing junk bonds in near record numbers, a troubling signal for the stock market

Key Points
  • High-yield bond funds saw $6.8 billion in outflows over the past week, the third-most on record, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
  • The sector is considered an excellent proxy for the stock market, with the correlation as high as 76 percent this year.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Though stock market prices have held up in November, investors generally are running from risk at a near-record pace.

Judging from the flow of money out of high-yield bonds, investors are getting increasingly leery of a market that continues to hover around record levels, despite a handful of rough trading sessions in November and a rocky start Friday.

Funds that track junk bonds saw $6.8 billion of outflows over the past week through Wednesday, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That's the third-highest on record.

The sector is considered a key proxy for the stock market, with performance that has followed almost a perfect correlation with the in terms of direction. Bonds are normally thought as a safe-haven trade that benefits when stocks weaken, but high-yield represents a risk similar to equities.

The correlation in 2017 has varied: September was the high for the year at 76 percent, while June was just 42.4 percent, according to DataTrek Research. (100 percent would mean the assets move exactly in tandem.)

Despite the stock market rally, returns for high-yield this year are muted, with the iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF up just 1.1 percent. The ETF has seen $1.4 billion in outflows over the past month, according to FactSet.

However, there's some optimism that the selling will be short-lived. Citigroup analyst Michael Anderson thinks high yield will rebound heading into the end of the year.

"Month to date, there have been more block-sized client buys than sells. This indicates to us that positioning is supportive and cash balances are fairly robust," Anderson said in a note to clients. "With a light pipeline ahead, we believe investors will not be looking to make room for new issues."

Funds that focus on stocks took in $3.2 billion for the week. However, that was distorted by a huge inflow of $9.9 billion into exchange-traded funds, while longer-term mutual funds suffered $6.7 billion in outflows, the most of 2017.

Investors were focused on safety, with investment-grade bonds gathering $4.8 billion in flows while Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities took in $400 million, the best showing in 38 weeks.

WATCH: High-yield bonds have a long history as a market tracker.

Junk bonds and gauging risk appetite