Net inflows to the nation’s stock mutual funds showed signs of recovery in December after November’s slump, and some fund companies and observers are predicting that January’s figures will prove even more robust.

According to figures released Tuesday by the Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund trade group in Washington, investors bought $11.5 billion of stock funds in December, more than double the $5.5 billion recorded the month before. As the November slump was seen to presage an overall slowing of the U.S. economy, the December upswing would seem good news for the industry.

But some observers say they doubt the boost foreshadows any coming market rally. Instead, they attributed the rise to normal market trends, such as retirement planning needs.

Geoffrey Bobroff, a mutual fund consultant in Providence, R.I., said the increase likely reflects yearend retirement plan contributions, a trend he said is likely to continue until tax season in early April.

Others say the rebound is evidence that average investors are more confident and better-educated about investing than they were in the past. Robert Ash, president and chief executive officer of Fleet Investment Advisers in Boston, said that “investors are light-years more sophisticated than they ever were.” People are less terrified of stocks, and more likely to buy during a market dip, than they may have been before, he said.

Equity fund sales at some companies continued to grow last month. A spokeswoman for Fidelity Investments in Boston said sales topped $20 billion, substantially above both December sales and those of a year earlier.

A spokesman for AIM Mutual Funds noted that funds historically have the most success in January. A recent study of more than 20 years of fund inflows by the Houston company found that 14% of the average fund’s yearly net inflows came in January, substantially more than in any other month.

“If you have a bad January you’re going to have a hard time performing in the top 10,” he said.

However, the increased enthusiasm for stock funds did not rub off on bond funds. Net bond fund outflows in December grew from November.

One notable exception was Fidelity’s family of bond funds, which had a positive monthly inflow — more than $700 million — for the first time in years, a Fidelity spokeswoman said. January’s bond fund numbers will look even better, she said.

Industrywide, investors withdrew $1.2 billion from taxable bond funds in December, roughly double the November loss. Similarly, hybrid stock-and-bond funds had outflows of $1.5 billion, compared with $263 million the month before.

Mr. Bobroff said the trend reflects flagging enthusiasm for bonds in general. “You don’t see brokers telling their customers to pick up the phone and buy bonds.”

Some of that money went to money funds, which had inflows of $240 million, up from $9 million the month before, the study showed.

A record $309.3 billion of cash flowed into stock funds last year, according to the ICI numbers. The previous record of $227.1 billion was set in 1997.

Despite the record inflow, however, assets in stock funds last year declined 1.9% from a year earlier, to $3.96 trillion. This drop reflects the overall decline in equity markets last year. However, assets in all mutual fund sectors, including money market and municipal bond funds, increased 2.2%, to $6.967 trillion.


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