Investor flows show there's no euphoria for this bull market, which means it could keep going

Key Points
  • Individual clients of Bank of America were net sellers of stocks in 2019, and flows from institutional investors and hedge funds were nearly flat.
  • The lack of buying could be a contrarian signal that the bull market has further to go.
  • Corporate buybacks were the biggest source of inflows, according to Bank of America.
  • 2019 saw the lowest inflows for equity ETFs in five years, according to Andrew Folsom of Wells Fargo Investment Institute.
A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Bryan R Smith | Reuters

The stock market's indomitable run to continued record highs despite fears about trade wars, real wars and a recession still has not been enough to lure most investors off the sidelines and into stocks.

This suggests the bull market may still have some room to run.

Investment flow data shows that individual investors were largely net sellers of equities in 2019, even as corporate buybacks helped push the market to record highs. The lack of widespread participation suggests that the market hasn't hit a moment of euphoria or "blow-off top" that often precedes a pullback. That will only happen when these investors finally capitulate and flow back into stocks on fear of missing out on more gains.

With the market "trading at fresh all-time highs, the investor participation has been light, and the bear capitulation is likely to have legs," J.P. Morgan strategists said in a note to clients Monday.

There appears to be no change in that pattern as the calendar turned to 2020. Data from Bank of America Securities showed a $550 million net outflow for the bank's clients during the first week of the year. The same data showed that the clients were net buyers of equities in 2019, but that was driven almost entirely by corporate buybacks. Individual investors were the biggest net sellers.

The S&P 500 was up more than 28% last year. This year, it has overcome fears of a U.S. conflict with Iran to reach yet another record.

Yet all this time, investors have preferred to play it safe.

Andrew Folsom, senior investment analyst at Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said that 2019 also saw the lowest level of inflows for equity exchange-traded funds in five years. Large-cap blend ETFs were the most popular, Folsom said, but even those buying into the equity market were more focused on defensive positions.

"Even when it came to large-cap blend, investors had a big demand for low volatility and dividend-paying large-cap blend ETFs," Folsom said. Investors did start to move away from the low-volatility ETFs over the last few months but the dividend-yield ETFs were still popular, Folsom said.

Global equities saw their greatest outflow in three years in 2019, at $143 billion, while money markets and bonds saw record inflows, according to a note from Jefferies. There were inflows of $39 billion for global equities in the fourth quarter, which was the biggest inflow since 2018.

The low demand for equities pairs with measures of sentiment that show investors as cautious. The most recent report from the American Association of Individual Investors had 37.2% of investors saying they were bullish, below the 38% historical average.

Energy and materials saw the biggest non-buyback inflows last year, according to Bank of America, despite ETF outflows. Financials were the biggest source of outflows in ETFs last year, Folsom said.

Overall, investments have been pulled out of cyclical stocks and into defensive stocks and bonds, according to J.P. Morgan.

"Despite equities being the best asset class last year, money has flowed out of equity funds, and into bonds and cash," J.P. Morgan strategists said.

Clarification: This story was revised to note that Folsom said 2019 saw the lowest level of inflows into equity ETFs in five years.

—CNBC's Michael Bloom contributed to this story.