Market Keeps Rising, But Who's Buying?

By Jeff Cox, Senior Writer

NEW YORK ( CNBC) -- The stock market's direction continues to be aggressively and consistently higher, but it's hard to decipher sometimes who is doing all the buying.

Virtually every metric offered to gauge investor behavior is showing money draining out of the market and insiders skeptical about the future.

From mutual fund flows to insider selling to analyst downgrades and upgrades, pessimism is pouring in faster than a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer tap at a hipster spring break party.

"Why are investors so cautious? Demographics and poor longer-term stock market returns probably play a role," notes Charles Biderman, CEO at the TrimTabs market research firm, in his weekly analysis. "But we also think that all the volatility and central bank interventions in financial markets are leading more investors to question how stable the financial system really is."

More from CNBC
Married CEOs Drag Down Your Portfolio
Apple: The Secret Reason It Has So Much Cash
Why Bull Market in Bonds May Be Nearing an End

Biderman hauls out a variety of data points to show the level of investor caution.

Stock-based mutual funds have lost $1.2 billion since the start of February even though those same funds have returned 9.8 % in 2012.

Moreover, bond mutual funds have pulled in at least $6 billion for six weeks running, totaling $29.6 billion in the past four weeks, which was 11.8 times as much the $2.5 billion into all equity funds.

Finally, and perhaps most damning, corporate insiders are dumping their holdings in droves, selling $6.8 billion in February, the most in 11 months and 13 times the level of insider buying, which is way above the norm of 8.6 times.

And yet...the market keeps on rising.

For answers to the sentiment dichotomy, Nick Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx in New York, took a look at opinions regarding upcoming quarterly earnings for the Dow industrials, and saw a similar level of pessimism in the analyst community.

Analysts expect just 5% year-over-year sales growth for the Dow 30, which is the smallest gain in the short time his company has been tracking such expectations. Similarly, Thomson Reuters has found companies issuing negative earnings preannouncements outweighing those issuing positive ones by a 3-to-1 margin, the highest since the crisis days of 2009.

Colas tries to figure out why the market can look so good but expectations be so dour by dissecting analyst psychology.

"The logical question given the current rally is, 'What's going on here?'" Colas writes in a note. "Most sell side analysts presumably have some access to a stock quote service or the occasional business periodical, so they know equities are in full-on rally mode.

"You'd expect them to start raising expectations, feeding off the signal that markets are growing more optimistic about the U.S. economy and global prospects generally. We suspect they are staying on the sidelines for two reasons."

Colas cites "horror stories" about European companies and their austerity worries, as well as the desire to play it safe during the current rally. He reasons that analysts are watching their favorite stocks rise without the benefit of "buy" ratings, so they don't feel they need to "put (themselves) out on that limb."

More about those analysts: Despite a rally that has pushed the Standard & Poor's 500 up 11% in 2012, analysts have cut their "buy" ratings on each of the index's 10 sectors during the course of the year.

The best of the lot has been energy, which has seen the percentage of "buy" ratings shrink from 64.8% to 61.8 %. But more defensive names have gotten slammed. Utilities, in particular, have seen the number drop to just 31.9% from 36.6%, according to research from Bespoke Investment Group.

Looking for someone who does like the market?

Interestingly enough, while billions have been flowing out of stock funds and analysts are rushing to warn of trouble ahead, individual investors still at least think the market is going higher, even if their actions don't always seem to match their sentiment.

The most recent Investors Intelligence survey, which measures sentiment among newsletter editors, has bulls outnumbering bears by a 43% to 26% margin. The American Association of Individual Investors survey, meanwhile, has a 45-to-27 spread, marking the 11th week in a row of a double-digit lead for the bulls, the longest such streak since 2005.

And therein may be the bull case for stocks.

"It wouldn't be so surprising to see this kind of negativity from the analyst community if the market was falling, but stocks have gotten off to one of their best starts to a year in decades," Bespoke notes in an analysis. "Only time will tell if the analysts are right, but fortunately history has shown them to be contrarian as a group."

--Written by Jeff Cox at CNBC
CNBC is a world leader in business news, providing real-time financial market coverage and business information.