Investors are holding near-record levels of cash and may be poised to snap up stocks

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  • A record amount of funds flowed into money market accounts as the year ended. Those funds could be the fuel for a major stock rally.
  • The Investment Company Institute said money market accounts held a record $4.814 trillion in the week ended Jan. 4.
  • But strategists say investors may hold back from putting more money into stocks, since sentiment is sour and money markets are now generating more return than they have been in years.
Dollar banknotes.
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Investor cash holdings are near record highs, and that could be good news for stocks since there is a wall of money ready to come right back into the market.

But the question is this: Will those investors return any time soon, especially with sentiment still so sour and stocks at risk of a major selloff?

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Total net assets in money market funds rose to $4.814 trillion in the week ended Jan. 4, according to the Investment Company Institute. That eclipses the prior peak of $4.79 trillion during May 2020, back in the earlier months of Covid-19.

These sums include money market fund assets held by retail and institutional investors.

The level of assets in these money market funds has come off the highs since the start of the year, but Wall Street has already noticed the cash pile.

“It’s a mountain of money!” wrote Bank of America technical research strategist Stephen Suttmeier. “While this seems contrarian bullish, higher interest rates have made holding cash more attractive.”

Staying in a holding pattern while earning income

Investors, worried about earnings and interest rates, may be willing to wait before they put more money into stocks. At the same time, money market funds are actually generating a few percentage points of income for the first time in years.

That means investors may be finding a safer way to generate some return while they wait for the right moment to invest. Consider that sweep accounts, where investors hold unused cash balances in their brokerage accounts, can park those amounts in money market mutual funds or money market deposit accounts.

Cresset Capital’s Jack Ablin said the change in behavior toward money markets reflects a bigger shift in the investing environment.

“Cash is no longer trash. It’s paying a reasonable interest and so it makes the hurdle higher over which the risky assets have to jump to generate an additional return,” Ablin said.

Julian Emanuel, senior managing director at Evercore ISI, said the surge into money markets was a direct result of selling stocks at year end.

“If you look at the flow data for the middle of December, liquidations were on the order of March 2020,” he said. “In the short-term, it was a very contrarian buy signal. To me this was people basically selling the market at the end of the year, and they just parked it in the money market funds. If the selling continues, they’ll park more.”

In search of relatively safe yield

Emanuel said anecdotally, he is seeing signs of investors moving funds from their lower paying savings accounts to their brokerage accounts, where the yields can be close to 4%.

Be aware that money market accounts issued by banks are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, while money market mutual funds are not.

Still, with December’s inflation rising at a 6.5% annual rate, higher prices for consumers are chiseling away at any gains.

Ablin said the change in investor attitudes about money market funds and also fixed income came with Federal Reserve interest rate hikes. Since last March, the Fed has raised its fed funds target rate range from zero to 0.25% to 4.25% to 4.50%. Those money market funds barely generated interest prior to those rate hikes.

For instance, Fidelity Government Money Market Fund has a compounded effective yield of 3.99%. The fund generated a 1.31% return in 2022.

Ablin said bonds have become attractive again for investors seeking yield.

“We like the fact that the bond market is finally carrying its own weight after years and years,” he said. “From that perspective, you would expect a rebalance away from equities into bonds. They’ve essentially been fighting equities with one hand tied behind their back for 10 years or more.”

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