Here’s how ETF investors have ridden this week’s coronavirus roller coaster

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Unless it’s not.

Even as coronavirus concerns upended financial markets over the past week, exchange-traded fund investors have behaved in a very peculiar way.

They have been relatively rational.

That’s even as U.S. markets saw their worst two-day slide in stocks on record.

Investors have trimmed their exposure to Japan, one of the countries hardest-hit by the virus contagion. They have “reined in their risk tolerance,” in the words of CFRA analyst Todd Rosenbluth. And they are snapping up lower-cost versions of popular investing strategies. What they are not doing is panicking and stuffing money under the mattress.

Those observations come from CFRA’s data showing the past week of flows in and out of ETFs, through Monday. The 10 funds that saw the biggest inflows are shown in the table below. While there are some self-evident themes — investors are snatching up bonds in a risk-off climate — there are some trends that may be less obvious.

Fund Name 1-Week Net Flow Strategy
Vanguard Total Stock Market

VTI, -0.55%

 

1,169,916,771 Total stock market, lower-cost
iShares Core S&P 500

IVV, -0.39%

 

1,094,623,900 Large-cap stocks
Invesco QQQ

QQQ, +0.52%

 

37,404,550 Large-cap tech stocks
Industrial Select Sector SPDR Fund

XLI, -0.76%

 

677,277,145 Industrials
iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond

TLT, -0.53%

 

521,478,800 20-year bonds
iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond

AGG, -0.10%

 

435,632,200 Bonds
Vanguard Total Bond Market

BND, -0.06%

 

428,936,000 Bonds
iShares Edge MSCI USA Momentum Factor

MTUM, -0.58%

 

401,871,750 Momentum
Technology Select Sector SPDR Fund

XLK, +0.46%

 

342,787,090 Tech
JPMorgan BetaBuilders Europe

BBEU, +0.08%

 

327,372,000 European stocks

For example, far and away the biggest recipient of flows was the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF. But the single-biggest loser during the week was the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust. Funds with the biggest outflows are in the table below.

Fund Name 1-Week Net Flow Strategy
SPDR Portfolio Aggregate Bond

SPAB, -0.10%

 

-304,542,750 Bonds
Materials Select Sector SPDR Fund

XLB, -0.34%

-315,057,545 Materials
Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund

XLF, -0.73%

 

-356,424,755 Financials
SPDR Blackstone/GSO Senior Loan

SRLN, -0.26%

 

-392,965,205 Senior loans
JPMorgan BetaBuilders Japan

BBJP, +0.67%

 

-558,340,000 Japan
SPDR Portfolio Total Stock Market

SPTM, -0.41%

 

-581,612,015 Total stock market, more expensive
iShares MSCI Japan

EWJ, +0.49%

 

-607,972,185 Japan
 iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond

HYG, +0.10%

 

-773,939,130 High-yield bonds
iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond

LQD, -0.37%

 

-1,037,511,700 High-yield bonds
SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust

SPY, -0.37%

 

-7,080,428,600 Stocks, more expensive

What’s the difference? As MarketWatch has previously reported, SPY is a broad stock-market index fund that’s favored by institutional investors because of its liquidity. Inflows into funds like VTI and another Vanguard product, VOO, which picked up nearly $90 billion over the past week, are more likely representations of individual investors calmly plowing their money into the lowest-cost, broadest exposure stock funds available. (VTI charges an expense ratio, or management fee, of just 3 basis points, cheaper than the 9.45 basis points SPY charges. That means that for every $1,000 invested in that fund, a fee of 94.5 cents will be charged.)

“What I don’t see here is panic,” Rosenbluth said in an interview. “The buy-and-hold ETF investor doesn’t seem as fazed by the past week as the liquidity-focused institutional audience.”

See: Tired of market turbulence? These ETFs offer to define your financial outcomes

But the big players aren’t exactly freaking out, either. They are shifting money out of Japan, as noted, probably to the benefit of Europe — a market-cap-weighted index of large- and midcap stocks in developed European countries was the tenth-biggest gainer in the past week. They are selling financials — XLF was one of the biggest losers — which makes a lot of sense as interest rates have fallen off a cliff and the yield curve has inverted even more. They are also pulling sharply away from junk bonds, a step that makes a lot of sense in uncertain times.

To be sure, there are some curiosities among the data. Amid concerns about a global economic slowdown and massive disruptions to supply chains, the fourth-biggest set of inflows went to a fund that tracks industrial stocks. “There’s a lot of noise in the data,” Rosenbluth noted.

Still, the information overall tells a straightforward story. With about $1.3 billion flowing into funds amid all the upheaval, there’s still demand for ETFs, Rosenbluth noted. “Money is flowing in while uncertainty is accelerating,” he said.

Related: Here’s why ETFs can’t bring down the financial system, iShares says

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