For mutual funds, cash is...cash.
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Looking for answers about where the market is headed next? Don't look at mutual fund data. It would be nice if this data could tell us whether a tidal wave of new money was going to hit Wall Street or whether jittery investors would pull their money out, but it doesn't work that way.
The most commonly sited data from mutual funds I see being used to get sense of where the market is headed are net inflows and mutual fund cash positions. Unfortunately, the first gauge is a lagging indicator and the second hardly ever changes.
Is There a Cash Hoard?
There have been some reports that money managers have built up cash and that they are waiting to invest that at lower prices. That may well be true, but it isn't in the mutual fund world. Once upon a time, mutual funds were run like they were an investor's only holding; some managers liked to try to time the market by building cash when the market was overpriced and investing it when things looked better.
However, that's not how things work any more. Most fund companies and many investors expect their managers to be fully invested. At Fidelity, for example, they look at a fund's history of sales and redemptions, its asset size, and its volatility to estimate a likely range of possible inflows and outflows. The fund then targets a cash range that can accommodate that--say 3% or 4% commonly. Other fund shops aren't quite that strict but it's pretty rare that you see managers making double-digit moves into cash.
I've seen some reports about heightened cash positions in funds but that's a little misleading. There are a number of funds that invest in futures or other derivatives and hold cash against those contracts. In that case, the cash isn't free to be invested when the manager feels bullish--it already is invested. To see what the typical U.S. stock fund's cash position is, I screened out balanced funds, long-short funds, and funds from fund companies that typically hold derivatives so that the cash stake is misleading (PIMCO, Profunds, Rydex, and Direxion). Adjusted that way, cash is just 3.7%. That's fine for meeting redemptions, but it isn't exactly a hoard waiting to buoy the market.
One downside of staying fully invested is that a manager might have to make more flow-driven trades, and that can be pretty costly according to recent academic research. As a result, some funds use ETFs as a way to gain market exposure but in a very liquid way so that they can sell or buy more to meet cash while staying fully invested.
Have we lost something by having managers stay fully invested? I don't think so. In order for strategic cash to be a useful tool, the fund should meet two tests. First, the manager should be good at using cash either as a macro call or as a reflection of opportunities the manager is finding as you see at places like Longleaf, Fairholme, and FPA. Second, it should be clear to shareholders that the fund will make such moves into cash. Not many funds meet those criteria. I have no problem with those that do; its hard to argue with Longleaf's approach or results, for example.