By Dani Burger
(Bloomberg) --Stocks are at all-time highs, and investors holding the priciest ones are starting to get uneasy.
Sitting on the sidelines as the S&P 500 Index is setting records almost daily isn’t a great investing strategy, but stress is building below the surface. Judging by the growing demand for a variety of hedges, investors are seeking insurance in case stocks reverse course.
“The S&P 500 is at new highs which we must label as a positive,” JC O’Hara, an analyst at FBN Securities Inc., wrote in a note to clients. “However, there are a few warning signs that have started to appear.”
For options tracking the S&P 500, the ratio of outstanding puts-to-calls climbed to its highest level in more than two years as the gauge moved above 2,500 for the first time on Friday, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Bearish bets are also piling up among mega-cap stocks, the biggest contributors to U.S. equity gains this year. As the Nasdaq 100 Index rose to a new high on Sept. 13, demand for protection grew to the most in over a year on the most popular ETF tracking the index, the Powershares QQQ Trust.
Contracts protecting against a 5 percent drop in QQQ cost 6.3 points more than calls betting on a 5 percent rise last week, the widest spread since June 2016, according to three-month data compiled by Bloomberg. The gap was 6.1 points on Tuesday, still 16 percent above the measure’s two-year average.
Investors also reacted to rising valuations by bidding up value shares -- stocks priced at deep discounts to earnings and assets. Through Friday, a market-neutral value strategy saw its biggest weekly gain in three months, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Over the same stretch, investors added $337 million to U.S. value ETFs, compared to just $55 million the week prior.
“Value factors have been among the best performing over the past two weeks, reflecting a shift in market sentiment,” Dennis DeBusschere, head of portfolio strategy at Evercore ISI, wrote in a note to clients Monday. “Assuming global growth estimates remain firm to higher, rising inflation readings are a support for cyclicals and value.”
Investor nerves have yet to manifest themselves on the CBOE VIX Index, which has fallen for seven-straight sessions and is trading at around 10. Even so, leveraged exchange-traded products that benefit from market turmoil gathered the most money in over a year.
The VelocityShares Daily 2x VIX Short Term ETN, ticker TVIX, and ProShares Ultra VIX Short-Term Futures ETF, symbol UVXY, together saw $337 million of weekly inflows, the most since March 2016, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
--With assistance from Cecile Vannucci.