Just how bad were industry flows in February and what is in store for March? While few analysts would dispute that industry flows were significantly down in February from the previous month, the answer to both questions can vary as widely as the information sources used to answer them.
Overall, industry flows amounted to $142 billion, down $111.6 billion from January's $253 billion, according to the Investment Company Institute of Washington, D.C. Stock funds hit a two-year record in outflows, losing $9.9 billion, according to the ICI.
However, on March 21, eight days before the ICI reported its figures, Lipper of Summit, N.J. announced that equity fund outflows for February were a record high of $11.4 billion. The following day it issued a correction, stating it had miscalculated the figure by $9 billion dollars because "an incorrectly entered asset amount" threw the number off, according to Lipper.
Although Lipper's error was due to a miscalculation, it highlights the differences in how firms report flows. While the ICI reports flows based on actual sales and redemption activity provided by over 8,000 funds, third party firms' figures are estimates based on funds' monthly assets.
Some firms calculate flows by using changes in funds' monthly assets minus performance while other firms that publish flows on a more frequent basis use a sample of a certain funds' assets to issue their estimates, according to Donald Cassidy, senior analyst with Lipper of Summit, N.J.
Regardless of methodology, no-one's calculated flows are exact and all firms' estimates deviate at least slightly from the ICI's figures. On good months, Lipper will get within a billion dollars of the ICI's flow figure and if the number deviates by more than $4 billion, it is considered a bad month, Cassidy said. But what third party data collection firms' flow reports lack in accuracy, they make up for in detail, according to Cassidy. Whereas the ICI categorizes flows in five broad categories, the data collection firms break down flows into investment categories, fund types and by the largest fund firms.
Detailed flow reports can give the industry and investors a better idea of trends taking place within various fund sectors, said Chris Cavanaugh, an analyst with FRC.
"The ICI provides top level data and we'll break it down further for people," he said. That gives a more accurate view of what is actually going on in a particular category of funds, he said.
"Large growth fund flows were down in February but value was up and looking at just equity or stock, you wouldn't get that," he said.
But comparing the accuracy of two firms' flow estimates is virtually impossible because each firm uses proprietary reporting methods and presents data a little differently, Cassidy said. For instance, Lipper reports equity fund flows while the ICI reports stock fund flows, he said. Lipper's equity fund category includes mixed equity while the ICI breaks out mixed equity, or hybrid funds, into a separate category, Cassidy said.
The diverse methodologies of tracking flows in turn leads to diversity among analysts' reactions to February's flows and predictions about March flows. While flows were down from January, the important figure to note in February was the rate of redemptions which has been stable in the past few months, said Avi Nachmany, director of research with Strategic Insight of New York.
"The market has been absolutely terrible and you look at the number of people changing their investments and it's the same," he said. Investors are not redeeming their fund shares but rather waiting to invest money, Nachmany said.
"The level of new purchases declined sharply by 30 percent in February," he said. Declining markets are fueling investors' hesitance, but there is "no evidence of people running for the gates," he said.
In contrast, Cassidy believes the level of new purchases will continue to decline and the pace of redemptions will rise.
"I think it would be very surprising if the new numbers didn't set a record for outflows," he said.