The flight to safety has begun.
Scrambling for relief from a volatile stock market, consumers last week began to park more cash in insured bank deposits, retail bankers around the country said.
But some bankers expect their gains to be short-lived. Many of the investors who fled mutual funds for banks chose short-term certificates of deposit, bankers said, suggesting they will return to the market as soon as it shows signs of settling down.
"There's a realization that every bull run will come to an end," said Paul Hunter, executive vice president overseeing community banking at UnionBancal Corp. in Los Angeles. "But there's still a lot of consumer interest in the stock market."
The market took investors on a wild ride last week, climaxing Tuesday when a lunch-hour dive of 166 points gave way to a 9- point gain by the end of the trading day. Although a rebound at the end of the week had investors breathing a sigh of relief, many remained rattled by the market's recent volatility.
During the two-day period ended last last Monday, investors pulled $446 million out of domestic stock mutual funds, according to estimates by Mutual Fund Trim Tabs, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based newsletter. That was the second highest level for any two-day period in the past two years, said Charles Biderman, the newsletter's publisher.
Some of the money that left stock funds last week went to retail money market mutual funds, which grew by $4.7 billion, according to estimates by the Investment Company Institute in Washington. But some also found its way into bank money market deposit accounts and certificates of deposit, which are insured by the federal government.
"The banks are the beneficiaries of volatility in the stock market," said Nancy Graves, an executive vice president at Mark Twain Bancshares in St. Louis. Her bank moved quickly to exploit the market downturn, placing an ad for a new CD on the stock pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"Positioning is everything," Ms. Graves said.
Exactly how much cash flowed into the banking industry last week will not be known for several weeks. But some institutions are already reporting gains.
At UnionBancal, for instance, weekly net inflows to CDs with maturities between 90 days and six months doubled to $4 million over the past two weeks, Mr. Hunter said.
But he hasn't seen much growth in longer-term products. Customers are taking a short break from the market, Mr. Hunter said, but are keeping their money liquid so they can jump back in.
"There's this notion: 'I don't want to be left out should the market kick back up,'" Mr. Hunter explained. Three weeks ago, Mark Twain began offering a 15-month CD returning 6%. In the third week - when the market faltered - the bank saw purchases increase 20% over the first two weeks.
Ms. Graves expects last week's tumultuous market to bring in even more deposits.
She added that Mark Twain is seeing a growing demand for a new FDIC- insured money market account called "Money Market Plus." In June, the bank drew a 5% increase in cash into this product.
"Normally you see a seasonal decline," after customers invest in these types of accounts to build up money to pay taxes, she said. "But in hindsight, people may be feeling the volatility in the market."
Still, Mark Twain's customers haven't panicked, and there hasn't been an exodus from the bank's proprietary mutual funds. The reason may lie with aggressive brokers such as Stephen Angelis, president of the brokerage at Central Carolina Bank and Trust Co., Durham, N.C.
Mr. Angelis spent last week urging customers to move their money from money market and bond funds into stock portfolios. "In the last two days I've probably moved about 2 million bucks in that direction," he said late last week.
To be sure, some bank executives said they have yet to see a run-up in assets in insured deposit accounts.
"If I've had some gains in an equity fund, do I turn around and put it in a CD? That question comes up occasionally," said Frank J. Bonetto, executive vice president of community banking at Bank of the West in Walnut Creek, Calif. "It happens, and it has been happening all along ... but not a lot of it."
The market's long bull run has apparently made successful investors out of a lot of former savers.
"When the stock market is going up every day, it's somewhat harder to sell insured deposits," said J. Walter McDowell, president of Wachovia Corp.'s North Carolina bank. But if the stock market continues to slide, insured products are bound to become more appealing, he said.
In the absence of a crash like the one in 1987, Mr. McDowell said investors are unlikely to shift substantial assets to CDs and money market accounts.
"They won't soon forget how well they did in 1995," Mr. McDowell said.