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Buy American? Not so for retail stock fund investors

A Wall Street sign is pictured outside the New York Stock Exchange in New York, October 28, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Luciana Lopez

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A record run in U.S. stocks does not appear to have won over one large investor pool: Mom-and-pop retail investors.

Those investors have clearly favored international stock funds over domestic choices this year, despite record high U.S. equities prices.

Even brisk growth in the U.S. economy, which has been outstripping that of many global peers, has not moved mutual fund buyers, who have poured more than 50 times as much into international funds as domestic funds in 2014.

So far this year, mutual fund buyers have added about $1.6 billion in net new cash to domestic stock funds, according to data from Thomson Reuters unit Lipper.

"That's almost a rounding error," said Tom Roseen, head of research services at Lipper, noting the $87.5 billion of inflows into non-domestic stock mutual funds.

Mutual funds are often thought to represent the behavior of retail investors, with exchange-traded funds standing in for institutional buyers such as hedge funds and pension funds.

Those figures contrast with how stocks have actually performed this year. The S&P 500 is up about 7 percent, while MSCI's all-country world index ex-U.S. is down 9 percent.

It could be, then, that retail investors are looking to buy cheap, Roseen said.

Or they could still have long memories of the credit crisis, because household net worths slide sharply and have yet to recover. "Either they've gotten smarter or they're just on autopilot," Roseen said.

No less an investing authority than Warren Buffett has urged ordinary people to invest in America. "In aggregate, American business has done wonderfully over time and will continue to do so," he wrote in his annual letter to investors this year.

"Though we invest abroad as well, the mother lode of opportunity resides in America," wrote Buffett, the second-richest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine.

Certainly the U.S. economy is bounding past many other developed nations. The world's biggest economy grew at a 3.9 percent annual pace in the third quarter. Compare that with sluggish euro zone growth and a Japanese recession.

It could simply be that the numbers are not enough to persuade retail investors, many of whom saw their assets plummet during the crisis. The median net worth of U.S. households slumped from $135,700 in 2007 to $81,400 in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center.

Morningstar data also underscore the preference for international funds among investors. The data, which does not separate mutual funds from exchange-traded funds, shows that U.S. equity funds attracted $39.8 billion in new cash in the 11 months to Nov. 30.

International equities, however, brought in $140.9 billion, the data shows.

A separate category, called sector equity, which contains funds that invest in both U.S. and non-U.S. equities, had inflows of $51.0 billion.

"They (retail investors) don't have the confidence in the market," said Neil Hennessy, chief investment officer of Hennessy Funds.

While stocks are intangible, he said, people's houses are all too real - and thus the fear of the financial crisis lingers.

"That's where it gets scary," he said.

(The story is refiled to insert dropped word "been" in 3rd paragraph)

(Reporting by Luciana Lopez; Editing by Jennifer Ablan and Steve Orlofsky)