In the hunt for some bullish signals amid the ugly market selloff, some folks are pointing with hope to the cash mounting up in mutual funds -- cash that's just waiting to be poured back into the market.
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But if long-term mutual fund cash levels are any indication, that ocean of cash might not flow into stocks any time soon.
Rising cash positions in stock funds in recent years have presaged steep gains in the stock market, because when managers use that money to buy stocks, they can send prices north in a hurry. But this simplistic relationship between cash levels and stocks prices
might not hold true in the coming months, mainly because there's not much reason for managers to put their cash to work.
One veteran scoffs at tracking cash-level fluctuations in funds for signs of the bull. Says Bill Nygren, a portfolio manager with Chicago-based
who has some 20 years of experience: "It's just random noise. Looking at a 1 percentage point rise and drawing conclusions is silly," says the manager of the
Oakmark Select fund. "I think people are struggling to find an indicator that's bullish."
One undisputed point is that cash is rising in stock funds. At the end of October, the average U.S. stock fund had 6% of its money in cash, a 13% jump from Sept. 30 and the highest cash stake in two years, according to the
Investment Company Institute
, the mutual fund industry's trade group. Liquidity tracker
estimates more recent cash stakes at some 6.5%, a level not seen since November 1987. (
rising cash levels in funds, such as several funds run by Janus.)
Recently, rising cash has been a good sign for the market, while low cash levels have been bad news.
"Back in September 1998 when cash was 6.3%, the
returned 26.5% over the next six months," says Phil Edwards, managing director at
Standard & Poor's
funds unit. "Then in March 2000, when cash was at 4.3%, the S&P lost 6% over the next six months. So there is some correlation between cash levels and market performance."
But that relationship might not hold true now because managers might be perfectly happy leaving that money in the bank.
"A lot of cash on the sidelines is traditionally considered a bullish indicator, but I think what people are missing is that the low cash positions of recent years were aberrations. The current levels are more in line with
cash positions in the 1990s," says senior
fund analyst Scott Cooley.
In fact, they're a bit low. Between January 1990 and this past October, funds averaged a 7.4% cash stake, according to the
Investment Company Institute
Today's tough market environment might also keep money on the sidelines. Cash levels dipped every year from 1995 through 1999, finally ending up under 5%. Not coincidentally, that was the first time the S&P 500 strung together a five-year streak of returns over 20%.
"With the S&P 500 going up 20% each year, there was a very real penalty for holding cash," says Cooley.
With the S&P 500 down 11% on the year and the
off more than 38%, there isn't the same pressure to be "fully invested" in stocks. And with investors about to receive disappointing year-end account statements, some managers might be holding extra cash to meet potential redemptions.
Even if cash is a divining rod for market moves, profiting from a gush of fresh cash would mean accurately anticipating where it was going.
"I think it's a tough idea to play," says S&P's Edwards. "Over the last couple of years, cash all went to technology stocks and large-cap growth stocks. Now the cash might spread out and you might not get as big a jump."