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Merrill Fund Manager Survey Finds ‘Irrational Exuberance’

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Risk-taking hit an all-time high of net 16% among global investors in November, according to the latest Bank of America Merrill Lynch fund manager survey.

Investors’ average cash balance was decisively lower, falling to 4.4% from 4.7% in the October survey, and taking the fund manager cash rule out of “buy” territory for the first time since October 2013.

The cash rule holds that 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.

“Icarus is flying ever closer to the sun, and investors’ risk-taking has hit an all-time high,” Michael Hartnett, Merrill’s chief investment strategist, said in a statement. “A record high percentage of investors say equities are overvalued yet cash levels are simultaneously falling, an indicator of irrational exuberance.”

A net 48% of investors surveyed said equities were overvalued.

The poll was conducted in early November among 206 panelists with $610 billion in assets under management.

“Goldilocks” is now fund managers’ consensus view for the global economy, with a record high 56% of investors expecting above-trend growth and below-trend inflation, up eight percentage points from October.

At the same time, the below-trend growth and inflation (“secular stagnation”) outlook fell nine points from October to 25%, the lowest level since May 2011.

In other notable findings from the November survey, long Nasdaq was considered the most crowded trade for the sixth time this year, cited by 34% of investors, up from 29% in October.

Twenty-six percent of respondents said short volatility was the most crowded trade, and 18% said it was long U.S./EU/emerging markets high yield corporate bonds.

Investors continued to worry about a policy error from the Federal Reserve/European Central Bank, with 27% saying this was the biggest tail risk to the markets, up from 24% in the October survey.

The top three tail risks were rounded out by a crash in global bond markets, a concern of 22% of respondents, and a flash crash caused by “market structure,” cited by 13%.

Investors were divided on the likely effect of Fed balance sheet reduction and ECB tapering on equities, with 42% expecting lower stock prices and 35% expecting higher ones.

Allocation to global equities rose to net 49% overweight, the highest level since April 2015, and allocation to Japanese equities rose to net 23% overweight, the highest level in two years.

“Global fund managers see the profit outlook in Japan as favorable amid a strong earnings season,” Merrill’s chief Japan FX/Equity strategist, Shusuke Yamada, said in the statement.

“Investors continue to see Japan equities as undervalued relative to other markets and say they want to overweight Japan for the next 12 months.”

In contrast, pessimism toward U.K. equities continued to rise, with allocations net 37% underweight, a low last seen during the financial crisis, according to Merrill.

“U.K. sentiment is severely depressed and remains the least popular country market for European investors,” Merrill’s European equity strategist Ronan Carr said.

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