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Investors are selling stocks, but the market keeps rising

The Dow gained nearly 500 points last week to close at 26,424. It's now just "1.5% shy of its all-time high of 26,828.39, set on Oct. 3, 2018," Barron's notes. The S&P 500 is just 1.3% from its record close, and the Nasdaq is just 2.1% away from a record high.

Why it matters: U.S. stocks have shaken off almost all of their December sell-off, yet banks continue to report that investors are selling, not buying, equities.

  • "Fund flows continue to rotate towards bonds and out of equities. Bonds funds have continued to rake in flows ($11.4 billion this week) across almost every category, while large equity outflows persist (-$7.7 billion this week)," analysts at Deutsche Bank said in a Sunday note to clients.
  • So far in 2019, bond funds have seen almost $150 billion of inflows while equity funds have recorded $50 billion of outflows.

"The persistent outflows despite the strong equity rally are unusual but as we noted last week, have been driven by investors chasing falling yields," Deutsche analysts added.

Yes, but: Data from Lipper also shows money moving out of equities (-$11 billion) and into not just bonds but safe-haven money market funds, which took in $31.6 billion in net new money at the end of March, according to the most recently released report.

The bottom line: Aside from hedge funds, real money has largely been on the sidelines during the equity market's run, a theme that has been in place all year. What seems to really be pushing the stock market higher is corporate buybacks, which are on pace to surpass last year's record total.

  • But buybacks have long been a major part of U.S. stocks' rise. A recent study from researchers at the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority found that from 1997 to 2017, net buybacks explain 80% of the difference in countries’ stock market returns.