Allocation to U.S. equities surged 10 percentage points to 19% overweight in August, the highest since January 2015, as global investors continued to buy growth over value both regionally and sectorally, Bank of America Merrill Lynch reported Tuesday.
Sixty-seven percent of respondents in Merrill’s latest fund manager survey said the U.S. was the most favorable region for corporate profits, a record 17-year high.
At the same time, 12% of managers in the survey said they did not expect corporate earnings to improve by 10% or more over the next 12 months, a significant swing from 35% that thought they would in February.
Net 54% of investors were underweight bonds versus net 20% that were overweight global banks. Fund managers said the U.S. Federal Reserve’s tightening cycle would continue.
Average cash balance climbed to 5% in August, up from 4.7% in the July survey and still above the 10-year average of 4.5%.
The fund manager 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.
“Rising corporate leverage concerns say bonds should outperform stocks, while a weaker profit outlook suggests defensives could outperform cyclicals,” Merrill’s chief investment strategist Michael Hartnett said in a statement. “With investors telling us they are long the U.S., the Fed and cash, our view remains: peak profits, policy and returns.”
The survey was conducted August 3 to 9 among 243 panelists with $735 billion in assets under management.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents cited a trade war as the biggest tail risk to markets for the third straight month, albeit down three points from July. Quantitative tightening and a China slowdown rounded out the top three tail risks, the concerns of 15% and 14% of investors, respectively.
Respondents were split in their views when asked about decoupling in the global economy, with 34% expecting it to continue, 32% seeing U.S. growth decelerating and 28% thinking Asia and Europe would accelerate.
Long FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google’s parent Alphabet) + BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) perched atop the most-crowded trade list for the seventh consecutive month, cited by 54% of fund managers.
Fifteen percent identified short emerging market equity as August’s most-crowded trade, and 11% said it was short Treasuries.
Tech remained the most-favored sector in August, with allocation net 32% overweight, down one point from July. Allocation to healthcare slid five points to net 19% overweight.
Eurozone equities ended six months of falling allocations in August, increasing by five points to net 17% overweight.
As concerns about a “no deal” Brexit continued to rise, U.K. equities allocation experienced the biggest one-month drop since May 2016, down 10 points to net 28% underweight.
Allocation to emerging markets equities held steady at net 1% underweight, after having plunged 23 points in the July survey. Merrill noted that emerging markets equities were still well above lows from prior crises.
Passive Investing and ETFs
Eighty percent of August survey participants responded to the poll’s new section on passive instruments and exchange-traded funds, 47% of which said they actively used ETFs within their portfolios.
Merrill said 20% (weighted average) of fund managers’ assets were allocated to ETFs, well above the 11% ETF allocation of the firm’s private clients. Only 12% of respondents said they invested more than 41% of their portfolios in ETFs.
Eighty percent of investors reported that they used ETFs to gain equity market exposure, up one point from July, versus 8% for corporate bonds and 4% for commodities.
Seventy-three percent used ETFs to passively track broad equity market indexes. Smart beta and multi-asset lagged far behind at 12% and 4% usage.