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Portfolio > Alternative Investments > Private Equity

Cash Levels Remain ‘Stubbornly High’ in August Merrill Survey

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Global investors’ average cash balance held steady at 4.9% in August, still above the past 10-year average of 4.5%, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s latest fund manager survey.

European investors’ cash weighting rose to 5.3%, the highest reading in more than 14 years.

“Fund managers are holding on to cash at a stubbornly high level,” Ronan Carr, Merrill’s European equity strategist, said in a statement. “Even so, European investors are positive on the growth outlook in the region but are moderating EPS expectations.”

The high cash level means that the fund manager survey cash rule is still in buy territory.

According to this rule, when average cash balance rises above 4.5%, a contrarian buy signal is generated for equities; when the cash balance falls below 3.5%, a contrarian sell signal is generated.

The survey, conducted in early August, received responses from 202 panelists with $587 billion in assets under management.

The poll found that only net 33% of investors thought corporate profits would improve over the next 12 months, a drop of eight percentage points from the July survey and 25 points from January and the lowest level since November 2015.

“Investors’ expectations of corporate profits have taken an ominous turn this year, which is a warning sign for equities over bonds, high yield over investment grade, and cyclical sectors over defensive ones,” Merrill’s chief investment strategist, Michael Hartnett, said in the statement. “Further deterioration is likely to cause risk-off trades.”

Investors continued to consider a policy mistake by the Federal Reserve/European Central Bank, cited by 22% of respondents, and a crash in global bond markets, cited by 19%, as the top tail risks to the market.

Nineteen percent also mentioned North Korea as a major tail risk.

Net 49% of investors surveyed said they would be most surprised to see a recession in the next six months, while net 28% said an equity bubble would be the least surprising event.

A record high 46% of respondents maintained that equity markets were overvalued.

The effect of this year’s Fed balance sheet reduction will be a nonevent, according 48% of investors surveyed. Another 31% said any decrease would be a risk-off event, pushing bond yields higher and equities lower.

The report noted that concern over the effect of central bank tightening reflected investors’ views on inflation. In response to a new question in the August survey, 43% of respondents said they thought low inflation was structural.

The percentage of investors who expect a Goldilocks scenario of above-trend growth and below-trend inflation rose by six percentage points to a record high 42% in August. At the same time, 46% said they expected secular stagnation, down one point from July.

Thirty-one percent of respondents in the August survey thought long Nasdaq was the most crowded trade, the fourth straight month this has topped the list.

Short U.S. dollar came in second, cited by 21%, followed by long eurozone equities, mentioned by 16%.

Investors in August continued to favor banks, technology, pharma, insurance and industrials, while they avoided the utilities, telecoms, staples and energy sectors.

Allocation to U.S. equities fell to net 22% underweight from net 20% underweight in July. The last time the underweight in U.S. stocks was larger was in January 2008, according to Merrill.

Allocation to eurozone equities rose by two percentage points to net 56% overweight in August, while the allocation to Japanese equities rose to net 20% overweight from net 18% overweight.


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