Against rising uncertainties about the outlook for stocks and the economy, investors are pouring huge sums of money into fixed-income instruments, and bond ETFs are on pace to set a new record for net inflows during the first six months of a year. For the year-to-date through early this week, fixed-income ETFs have pulled in about $72 billion of net new money from investors, and assets in debt strategies now equal a record $741 billion, according to a detailed story in Bloomberg, which is outlined below.

“Fixed income is the benefactor of an overall hangover from last year and nervousness about money going forward," observes Eric Balchunas, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. In this market, he adds, “Bond ETFs are punching way above their weight. "

A variety of red flags for the economy indicate that a shift from stocks to bonds may be well-timed right now, due to the latest news on falling consumer confidence and declining residential home construction amid a protracted trade war.

The latest data on bond ETF inflows come in the wake of reports that low and sinking bond yields are spurring a resurgence of so-called TINA sentiment, the view that "There Is No Alternative (To Stocks)" right now. The bond inflows indicate that the TINA viewpoint is not shared in all corners of the market.

The table below summarizes this flight to safety.

Key Takeaways

  • Bond ETF inflows are on a record pace for the first 6 months of this year.
  • Worries about the economy and stocks are driving the rush to fixed-income assets.
  • These concerns are pushing assets in debt strategies to record levels.

Significance For Investors

Long duration bond funds are enjoying the heaviest net inflows, $8.6 billion year-to-date through June 24, Bloomberg notes. The largest fund in this category, the $14.4 billion iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT), has taken in $4.5 billion this year, a 65% increase, and the iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF (IEF) has taken in a new record of $5.5 billion so far this year, beating its old high set five years ago.

Bond prices are likely to rise if interest rates continue to drop amid a new cycle of easing by the Federal Reserve and central banks around the globe, rewarding those who have shifted their portfolios towards fixed income. Nonetheless, some observers believe that cautious investors are content to lock in current rates, and are not betting on further rate reductions.

“They’re [i.e., investors] willing to accept the current interest rates over the long period,” Chris Gaffney, president of world markets at TIAA Bank, told Bloomberg. “When you lengthen duration like that, when you’re looking at the long end of the curve, obviously you’re thinking that you’re willing to lock in those lower rates for a longer period because you don’t think interest rates are going anywhere,” he added.

Most strikingly, funds that invest in corporate debt are seeing brisk buying action despite worries about the risks posed by record high debt among U.S. companies.

Looking Ahead

Despite the flood of investor money and rapidly increasing popularity over the past five years, bond ETFs nonetheless represent only about 1% of the global bond market, whereas equity ETFs account for about 8% to 9% of the stock market, Barron's reports. These generally low cost, diversified bond ETFs may continue to experience brisk growth as investors shift away from holding individual bonds, the report adds.