Investors socked a net $3 billion into equity funds in January, making the month the poorest for January mutual fund flows in more than a decade, according to data released by Lipper.

Researchers said January is typically a big month for flows because people invest year-end bonuses or they see the new year as an incentive to put money away for the future.

But not this year. Equity funds posted gains of $3.1 billion and fixed-income funds posted flows of $9.4 billion. It was the worst January for funds since 1991, Lipper said.

Researchers said investors were clearly cautious following a year of poor returns. Science and technology funds were drained of more than $900 million and utility funds posted negative flows of $400 million, the company said.

"Either the public senses something negative about the future course of the U.S. economy and the stock market, or they are following the unfortunate practice of buying high and selling/avoiding low," researchers said in a statement. "Based on historical tendencies, we think the latter is true."

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