A Sluggish First Quarter for ETF Flows

Last year, global exchange traded products hauled in a record $247.3 billion, topping $200 billion for the second consecutive year.

Flows to U.S. ETFs and ETNs dominated at a combined $190.5 billion. Those statistics make the sluggish to 2014 for ETFs noticeable. In the first three months of this year, U.S. ETFs brought in just $15 billion. [A Record Year for ETF Inflows]

“The central cause for this sluggish rate is the persistently negative money flows out of SPY.  For the first quarter, this amounted to $18.9 billion, although in the month of March it was only a $1.5 billion negative number,” said Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx Group, a global brokerage company based in New York, in a note out Wednesday.

The “SPY” to which Colas refers is the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (NYSEArca: SPY), the world’s largest ETF. If there is a silver lining in the $18.9 billion pulled from SPY in the first quarter, it is that $17.4 billion was pulled from the ETF in January and February combined, according to ConvergEx data. There is even better news.

“That distinctly risk-averse tone of trading for January and February reversed itself completely in March.  Over the last 30 days investors have added $15.5 billion to equity fund and actually reduced their exposure to bond funds by $6.5 billion,” said Colas.

Departures from fixed income ETFs come after investors poured $16 billion into those funds from the start of February through Feb. 21. When it comes to bond ETF outflows, Treasury funds have been hit hard, perhaps a sign that some investors are forecasting higher interest rates sooner than later. Investors pulled $10.3 billion from Treasury ETFs last month. [Treasury ETF Outflows Could Portend Higher Rates]

Some of that cash may have flowed into cyclical sector ETFs.