Has the stock market peaked? Bank customers are beginning to think so.
Sales of stock funds are declining at some bank brokerages, while more conservative bond funds and balanced portfolios are on the rise.
"Our customer feels it's not the right time to buy into a growth or growth-and-income portfolio," said J. Pinkney Kellett, president of the brokerage unit at Coastal Financial Corp., Myrtle Beach, S.C.
They're telling a similar story at First Bank System, in Minneapolis, where sales of stock funds in May have not kept pace with a booming April.
"The market has been somewhat volatile in the last 10 days, so obviously there are investors sitting on the sidelines," said Joe Tessmer, president of the Minneapolis bank's brokerage subsidiary.
The market uncertainty that has so far characterized the month of May doesn't show up in the latest figures released by the Investment Company Institute. The fund industry trade group released recent estimates for April suggesting that net cash flows into stock funds will prove to be the second highest monthly total ever, at $23 billion. Net cash flows into bond funds were expected to be zero.
The highest month for new cash coming into stock portfolios was January, when investors poured in $28.9 billion.
The popularity of balanced funds among Coastal's customers jumped in April and is on the rise in May as well, Mr. Kellett said.
Balanced funds - portfolios that invest in both stocks and bonds - have so far made up 30% of mutual fund sales at Mr. Kellett's brokerage, when last month they comprised 15%
The two most popular funds in April were Income Fund of America and Capital Income Builder, both managed by Capital Research and Management Co.
Bond fund sales were up 15% over March, after being flat for several months.
At Security Capital Bancorp, Salisbury, N.C., sales of growth funds declined between 10% and 15% in April, said investment representative Page Brockman.
Mr. Brockman has shifted his investment recommendations from a strong emphasis on growth funds. Now, he is putting half of customer portfolios into more stable investments, particularly certificates of deposit and fixed annuities.
He recommends investing the other half where he sees future growth, in such portfolios as Templeton Growth Fund and Aim International Global Growth Fund, which invest overseas.
"The idea is to put the money where the next performance is going to be, and you've got the stable side taken care of," Mr. Brockman said.
Twenty-five percent of new money being invested at the brokerage unit went into CDs. And fixed annuity sales were up 15% over March, he said. He added that bond fund sales were flat at his bank, because annuity rates are more attractive now.
And the bond house Eaton Vance Corp. in Boston is finally seeing a pickup among bank customers of its municipal and state bond funds. Total mutual fund sales in April jumped 10% over March, said Brian Jacobs, senior vice president, bank division.
"When the long bond went over 7% last week, people were more interested in looking at that," he said.
About 50% of the company's sales through banks over the last few months have been in its PrimeRate Fund, a high-yield investment in corporate loans, which historically has had minimal fluctuations in principal.
Mr. Jacobs attributes the portfolio's growing popularity to uncertainty about the stock market. "When people aren't sure where to invest their money they go to a prime rate fund, because it has a relatively stable net asset value," he said.