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Fund Managers Remain Bearish Despite Rally: Merrill

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Global fund managers’ allocation to cash shot up six percentage points to net 44% overweight in February, the highest overweight since the financial crisis in January 2009, Bank of America Merrill Lynch reported Tuesday.

Investors’ average cash balance dropped slightly to 4.8% from 4.9% last month, but remained above the 10-year average of 4.6%, according to Merrill’s February fund manager survey.

Merrill noted that the fund manager cash rule has been in “buy” territory for 11 months. This 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.

Fund managers’ allocation to global equities slumped 12 points to just net 6% overweight in February, the lowest level since September 2016, Merrill said.

The February allocation to bonds climbed six points to net 36% underweight, just a point off December’s reading of 35%, the highest allocation since the Brexit vote in June 2016. Commodity allocations fell six points to net 7% underweight, notwithstanding the asset class’s recent outperformance.

“Despite the recent rally, investor sentiment remains bearish,” Michael Hartnett, Merrill’s chief investment strategist, said in a statement. “Fund managers’ positioning is still a Q1 positive for risk assets.”

Merrill conducted the latest survey in early February among 218 panelists with a total of $625 billion in assets under management.

Net 46% of investors in the survey said they expected global GDP growth to weaken over the next 12 months.

Fifty-five percent of survey participants were bearish on both the growth and inflation outlook for the global economy in the coming year, up 13 points month over month. Secular stagnation is now the consensus view among global investors, according to Merrill.

Fund managers’ concerns about the credit cycle remained elevated in February, falling just two points from record highs in December and January to net 46% of investors thinking corporate balance sheets were overleveraged.

Net 42% of investors expected global profits to deteriorate in the next year, a 10-point improvement on last month’s decade-long low, but still a major reversal from 37% of investors that said profits would improve 12 months ago.

A trade war remained firmly entrenched atop the list of big tail risks for the ninth consecutive month, cited by 29% of investors. A slowdown in China was on the minds of 21% of survey respondents, while a corporate credit crunch worried 12% of them.

Long emerging markets came out on top of the most crowded trade list for the first time in survey history, according to Merrill. Eighteen percent of respondents cited the trade, marking a major reversal from the 17% that put short emerging markets in last month’s No. 3 spot.

Long U.S. dollar, cited by 17% of investors, stepped down to second place on this month’s list, and FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google’s parent Alphabet) + BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) fell to third place, cited by 14% of fund managers. Merrill noted that investors’ conviction on the crowded trade was now at the lowest level on record.

Allocation to emerging market equities rose again in February, jumping eight points to 37% overweight — after having been 10% underweight in September — and cementing the region as the consensus overweight among fund managers.

Eurozone equities ended 18 months of allocation cuts in February, skyrocketing 16 points to 5% overweight. Japanese equities rebounded by 11 points from their underweight position in January to net 10% overweight this month.

Allocation to U.S. equities slid four points to 3% underweight in February, making the region the second least favored one among equity investors in the survey. The U.K. was still investors’ consensus underweight, the dubious distinction it has held for three years. In February, allocation to U.K. equities rose 13 points to 25% underweight.


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