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The Eerie Implications of Market Volume and Mutual Fund Flows

The Eerie Implications of Market Volume and Mutual Fund Flows 

Courtesy of Doug Short 

Once upon a time, market volume, in combination with price, was a useful indicator. Or make that indicators (plural), including Rate of Change, Volume Oscillator, On Balance Volume, Price and Volume Trend, Accumulation Distribution, Chaikin Oscillator, Money Flow Indicator, etc.

Even so, S&P 500 volume has been falling since early May with no sign yet of a post-summer seasonal increase. Of course, we’re still in the holiday shortened week following Labor Day. But look at the 2009 volume pattern on the chart. Where was the volume to confirm the market advance after a choppy October?

A recent WSJ article, SEC Is Looking at ‘Quote Stuffing’, mentioned in passing that high-frequency trading (HFT) accounts for about two-thirds of the market’s volume. 

I don’t know of a single comprehensive guide to what the retail investor is really up to, but the impression I get is that the equities are not high on the list of where to park money. The next two charts, covering the same timeframe, are based on data in a PDF file I downloaded from the Investment Company Institute. Since the chart above is a broad U.S. Index, the first chart below only measures fund flows for domestic equities. 

Naturally these charts are open to various interpretations. Bond Bubble Cassandras will see the last chart as a confirmation of their prophecy. Cheerleaders of ETFs and other alternatives to mutual funds may be inclined to disregard both fund-flow charts as largely irrelevant.

I used the wood "eerie" in the title to this piece primarily to convey my impression of a vague sense of disquiet about markets and the economy. Are retail investors sitting on the sidelines or scurrying to bonds because of anxiety about the market? If so, should we take this as a contrary indicator?

Here’s a more compelling question: If two-thirds or more of daily volume is a function of high-frequency trading, what are the implications for index prices over the long haul?

A year has passed since I posted some charts illustrating the incredible ratio of S&P 500 volume devoted to five financial stocks (see Gaming the Market). Today’s game is no doubt different from last September. It may be about making money, but it probably has little to do with investing — which may explain a lot about current volume metrics and mutual fund flows.

I’ll update these volume charts periodically in the months ahead. 


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