Rising interest rates have negatively affected stocks this year, and ETF investors have felt that impact as well. While there were some bright spots for ETF flows during the third quarter (Q3), the year-over-year downtrend in net flows (i.e., inflows minus outflows) continues, putting 2022 on track to fall well short of 2021's blockbuster year.
Here are highlights from recent ETF trends.
Stock ETF flows slow again, bonds stayed strong
ETF investors continue to have an expanding plate of investing choices. 319 ETFs have launched thus far this year, of which 117 starting trading in Q3. That puts 2022's pace close to 2021's annual record of over 450 ETF launches.
While issuance of new ETFs remains robust, net flows are down compared to last year. Rising interest rates, the war in Ukraine, and other factors that have stocks in the red year to date have clearly slowed ETFs' momentum relative to last year. ETFs have now accumulated $414 billion in net flows so far in 2022, down from $638 billion by the same point last year. That's after ETFs added about $100 billion in net flows during Q3. While these flows would be a relatively healthy amount for most other years, it's a tough comparison to 2021's record-setting pace (see ETF flows by quarter chart).
Rising interest rates appear to have impacted US equity (i.e., stock) ETF flows the most, although they were still the strongest category in Q3. Broad-based index ETFs saw the most flows for stock ETFs, with the top 10 ETFs by market cap accounting for nearly 70% of overall flows for this category. During the same quarter last year, stock ETF flows accumulated roughly double that of Q3 this year.
Meanwhile, fixed income (i.e., bond) ETF flows were relatively strong again. Bond ETF flows are normally not as high as stock ETF flows, but they nearly were last quarter. In fact, bond ETF flows during Q3 this year beat last year's Q3 bond ETF flows, with government/treasury bond ETFs having another record quarter ($42 billion in net flows). That brings the tally for this category up to $105 billion in 2022. Investors have also shown a preference for short-term bonds, which accounted for $19 billion of the bond flows this quarter, and they represent nearly half of the bond flows year to date.
Another interesting trend has been outflows for commodity ETFs. Perhaps no other segment of the market has been as volatile as commodity markets, which have been struck by geopolitical confrontations, supply chain disruptions, natural disasters, and other factors. Commodity ETFs saw nearly $20 billion in net outflows during Q3, as precious metal ETFs saw $9.5 billion in outflows (see Q3 2022 US-domiciled ETF flows chart). After gathering $10 billion in net flows during Q1, gold ETFs had outflows of $3 billion in Q2 another $8 billion in outflows during Q3.
Investors sought relative safety with defensive sectors
For the second consecutive quarter, there was a general rotation by ETF investors into defensive sectors. Among the 11 stock market sectors, the main defensive sectors had inflows during Q3, while all cyclical sectors had outflows (see US sector ETF flows chart).
Utilities ($2 billion), consumer staples ($1 billion), and health care ($1 billion) attracted net flows, while sectors that are the most commodity-price sensitive (materials and energy) had the largest outflows.
The rotation to defensive sectors reflects the shift in market sentiment this year and runs counter to a longer-term trend. Looking at the past 11 quarters, defensive sector flows have only outperformed cyclical sector flows in 3 other quarters (Q2 2022, Q3 2021, and Q1 2020).
Exploring the ETF universe
ETF flows can be a useful tool to help identify market trends, to see where investors are broadly putting their money. If you are exploring the ETF universe, the key is to find those that align with your objectives and risk constraints, regardless of the trend in flows.
One tool that may be of use is Fidelity's ETF Screener, which can quickly sort through a lot of data based on the filtering selections you make. You can search for ETFs using a variety of characteristics, like the fund's objectives, fundamentals, technicals, performance, volatility, trading characteristics, tax considerations, and analyst ratings.