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December ETF Flows: ETFs Break Records

  • Amid the market’s rally, ETFs took in a record $135 billion in December, finishing 2023 with $597 billion of inflows.
  • Equity funds’ $110 billion last month was a record, driven by a record $90 billion into US equity ETFs — boosted by the record $15 billion into US small caps.
  • Bonds’ $24 billion in December sent their 2023 total to $210 billion; their second-most annual flows ever were fueled by $14 billion into credit sectors.
Head of SPDR Americas Research

At the start of 2023, restrictive monetary policies, rising rates, and calls for a recession made double-digit returns on the standard 60/40 portfolio seem impossible. Yet, global capital markets did their best impression of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and made the impossible mission possible.

Stocks and bonds did not partake in a daring fight on a runaway train through the Austrian Alps or a parachute getaway over Paris in 2023. But a growth-led market pushed US equities close to a new all-time high.1 And once the Federal Reserve indicated rate cuts were on the horizon, the bond market posted gains to escape a third year in a row of losses.2

Propelled by US exceptionalism and significant resiliency from an enduring US consumer, the global economy did not enter a recession — even though many indicators (and prognosticators) forecasted one would occur. So, with only a slowdown, risk assets re-priced growth assumptions and markets moved higher.

With exuberance gripping investors, buying behavior also made the impossible possible in the ETF industry.

ETF Inflows Almost Hit $600 Billion in 2023

With just $360 billion of inflows through the first 10 months of the 2023, it seemed impossible for ETFs to have more than $500 billion in annual inflows and continue their streak of surpassing that barrier for four consecutive years.

But like Ethan Hunt scaling the Burj Khalifa, ETFs made the impossible possible. They finished 2023 with $597 billion, posting $237 billion (40% of 2023’s total) in the final two months of the year — including a record $135 billion in December.

This recent pace was far greater than anything we had seen last year (prior to November, the monthly average was just $36 billion) or throughout history (Figure 1). In fact, the final two months of 2023 are the greatest back-to-back months for ETF inflows, surpassing the $194 billion taken in during March and February of 2021 by $37 billion.

More than ten categories posted top-ten performances in December, including:

  • Equity ETFs’ record $110 billion
  • US equity funds’ record $90 billion
  • US small caps’ record $15 billion
  • Active funds’ record $16 billion, supported by record $11 billion into active equity funds and a record $5 billion into active fixed income
  • IG corporate bond ETFs’ third-best $8 billion and Senior Loan ETFs’ fourth-most ever $1.4 billion
  • A top-five finish for low-cost ETFs (+$48.5 billion), the secular growth engine for the industry

Active Sets Record; Bond Inflows Second-Best Ever for a Year

December’s record active inflows are particularly noteworthy because they added to 2023’s record run. For the year, active ETFs took in a record $132 billion — far outpacing the prior record from 2022 of $106 billion. And both active equity (+$94 billion) and active fixed income (+$35 billion) had record inflows in 2023.

All combined, active ETFs took in 22% of ETF inflows in 2023, despite accounting for just 6% of all net assets under management. This is the highest level of flow capture ever (Figure 2).

With record flows in each of the past four years, total active ETF assets have reached $533 billion. If active ETFs were to merely repeat the share capture trend from the past four years, 2024 flows could once again be over $100 billion and total assets could potentially surpass $700 billion, if market returns can provide an extra boost.

The other full-year industry highlight was how December’s $24.1 billion of inflows for fixed income ETFs brought 2023 figures to $210 billion. This is the second-most ever for bond ETFs for a year (just $3 billion behind 2021’s $213 billion) and the third time in four years they surpassed $200 billion.

Fixed income ETFs have now averaged $206 billion of inflows a year since 2020, and total fixed income assets surpassed $1.5 trillion for the first time. If bond ETFs can keep up their $200 billion a year inflow pace and the asset class produces positive returns, total assets could exceed $1.7 trillion by the end of 2024.

ETFs Enter 2024 in a Risk-On Mood

The record-setting headline equity inflows were supported by record-setting US equity flows, but also depth throughout the regions. All major geographical categories posted inflows in December and for 2023. And in the US, risk-on small caps took in a record $15 billion to amass $21 billion over the past three months. This late-year surge helped propel small caps to post $32 billion in inflows in 2023, their second-most ever for a year.

Rolling flow trends help illustrate the turn in sentiment that helped make the impossible possible. Over the last 90 days of 2023, equity funds took in $189 billion and bond funds took in $72 billion. Both figures are in the top five over the past 15 years.

Despite both asset classes posting sizeable inflows, the rolling 90-day flow differential popped well above the long-term median and ended the year in the 91st percentile. And bonds’ $24.1 billion in December was supported by nearly $14 billion of inflows into credit-related market sectors. Notably investment-grade corporate bond funds’ third-best ever $7.8 billion inflows and senior loan ETFs’ fourth-best ever $1.4 billion. And while not credit, the “risk-on” emerging market bond category added another $1 billion to bond funds that cannot be confused with taking a defensive stance.

This “risk-on” bond allocation trend only adds to the exuberance illustrated in the rolling 90-day flow differential (Figure 3) as, if those risk-on bond flows were added to equities, the differential would be far greater.

The one bond area to witness outflows on a tactical basis was the early-year darling defensive ultra-short government bond ETFs. These funds lost $6 billion in December, their second-worst month of outflows — just $1 billion shy of the record set in November. As a result, this is the worst two-month stretch ever for this category as investors seek to “re-risk.”

The trend of re-risking in bonds is starker when comparing the cumulative flow trends between the ultra-short and short-term government bond sector and credit related ETF exposures (IG corporate, high yield, and senior loans). They had been moving in different directions in 2023 — and then the re-risking mission happened (Figure 4).

Will Investors and ETFs Accept Their Next Mission?

With secular engines like low-cost, fixed income, and the emergence of actively managed ETFs supporting inflows, total US-listed ETF assets surpassed $8 trillion for the first time ever in 2023 ($8.1 trillion to be exact). Prior to November, total assets were just $7 trillion — a staggering $1 trillion away from where they ended the year.

If the 60/40 portfolio can return its long-term historical annual average (+7.3%)3 and flows repeat their performance (+$650 billion average inflows) over the past few years (a trend potentially supported by re-risking coinciding with a reversal of the $1 trillion in money market inflows in 2023),4 total ETF assets could approach $9.5 trillion in 2024 with a puncher’s chance of reaching $10 trillion if equity markets return in the mid to high teens.

But there’s a risk to that projection. The 2023 mission made possible was not without surprises or volatility. Earnings sentiment was uneven and market depth was weak, with returns and growth concentrated among just a few names. Rate volatility was in the 90th percentile,5 and there were numerous spikes in cross-asset volatility because of multiple geopolitical conflicts.

US equity markets, the engine behind the surge in global stock returns, now enter 2024 with stretched valuations.6 And geopolitical risks are likely to intensify, given 76 countries will hold elections in 2024.7

For 2024, investors’ mission, if they choose to accept it, is to believe that the resilience the global economy showed in 2023 will be successfully tested in 2024. And that markets will once again navigate risks, like Ethan Hunt bypassing henchmen on motorcycles in the hills of Casablanca. Balance, in both instances, is key.

For more insight into ETF flows along with the latest charts, scorecards, and investment ideas, visit Market Trends.

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