A shift in mutual fund investing has taken place during the first 11 months of the year: Investors have tripled the amount of money they put into bond and income mutual funds, while equity fund inflows have been flat.
Bank retail brokerage heads say they have not seen such a striking shift, probably because their customers invested their dollars more conservatively in the first place.
Pamela Dawson, president of WM Financial Services, the broker-dealer arm of Washington Mutual, Seattle, said that so far in 1997, about 60% of her business has been in bond funds and 40% has been in equity funds.
That's the same ratio as last year, she said. "We haven't seen a significant change."
Curt Anderson, president of First Busey Securities, the broker dealer for Urbana, Ill.-based Busey Bank, said his customers have largely bought into hybrid products that include a mix of stock and bond funds-and they have not shifted funds around in response to changing market conditions.
"Because of the fact that our client base is fairly conservative, we do like the balanced approach," Mr. Anderson said.
Industrywide, a shift in investor sentiment is much clearer.
Mutual fund inflows to equity mutual funds through November were $208.6 billion, according to the Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund company trade group. That figure is virtually the same as last year's.
But bond fund investments shot up to $36.1 billion, an increase of 348% over the same period in 1996.
The institute estimates that $8 billion flowed into bond and income funds in November, the largest amount for one month since January 1994, which saw $11 billion in inflows.
Market swings and the turmoil in Asia are partly responsible, mutual fund executives say.
"There is a fear factor out there, given the market correction in October, and all the headlines in international markets have made people slightly more conservative," said David B. Edlin, director of the financial institutions division of Putnam Mutual Funds.
Putnam has seen a "slight" shift to bond funds among bank customers since September, Mr. Edlin said.
Those customers are not necessarily heading for safe harbors at the expense of low returns, he said. Much of their money has flowed into strong performing bond funds such as a tri-sector fund that features corporate, government, and foreign-issue bonds.
"If the market continues to be choppy, we'll continue to see increased sales into bond funds," Mr. Edlin said. "It's an indication maybe we've gotten overweighted in domestic equities."
A small portion of the inflows into bond funds can be attributed to banks' converting common trust fund assets to mutual funds, according to the institute.
In 1996, federal securities laws were changed so that conversions from common trust funds to mutual funds are no longer taxed.
Banks are eager to convert to the mutual format, in part because such funds are easier to market.
Barry G. Knight, the bank channel head at Pioneer Funds Distributor, in Boston, said he is aware that a bond fund boomlet is taking place. He just has not seen any evidence of it through banks.
"I'm hearing that," he said. "I'm not seeing it, though."
Inflows into equity funds in November were an estimated $13.5 billion, down from $18.2 billion in October, according to the institute.
The decline was partially due to the tendency of investors to postpone stock fund purchases in advance of November and December capital gains distributions.
The federal tax code requires mutual funds to distribute 98% of the capital gains they have realized over the previous year by Dec. 31. The distributions are subject to taxation.
Because new investors will be subject to 12 months' worth of taxes, many advisers tell those clients to hold off on writing a check until after the distributions have been made.
"We've been recommending people postpone," said First Busey's Mr. Anderson. "A lot of funds are paying 10% to 15% in capital gains."