Profit expectations are rising, rate expectations are lower and cash levels are falling, yet global fund managers’ allocations to equities continue to fall, Bank of America Merrill Lynch reported Tuesday.
“The pain trade for stocks is still up,” Merrill’s chief investment strategist Michael Hartnett said in a statement on the release of the firm’s March fund manager survey. “There is simply no greed to sell in equities.”
Merrill conducted the survey during the second week in March among 239 panelists with a total of $664 billion in assets under management.
Allocation to global equities fell to net 3% overweight, down from 6% overweight last month, the lowest level since September 2016 and way off the 31% overweight as recently as November, according to the survey. Investors, Merrill said, have turned skittish on equities even though global stocks have returned 12% year to date.
Net 30% of hedge fund investors in the survey reported that they were net long equities, the lowest level since December 2016. Merrill said equity allocation has been negative only once in the past six years.
Investors’ allocation to cash dropped to net 40% overweight, down four percentage points from February’s 10-year high. Their average cash balance fell 0.2 points to 4.6% in March, indicating improved risk appetite.
Merrill noted that the fund manager cash rule has been in “buy” territory for 12 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.
Survey participants’ global growth expectations rebounded strongly in March for the second consecutive month, with net 25% of investors expecting global growth to weaken over the next year, a 22-point improvement from February and 36 points from January.
Fund managers’ inflation expectations also rebounded in March. Thirty-four percent said they expected a higher global consumer price index over the next 12 months, up 13 points from February, but still far below the 70% of managers who said this in November.
Asked about interest rates, 38% of investors thought the U.S. Federal Reserve’s hiking cycle was done, while 55% thought the Fed would continue to hike. Fifty-three percent said short-term rates would remain unchanged or go lower over the next 12 months.
According to Merrill, Fed funds futures markets are pricing in 13 basis points of Fed rate cuts in the next 12 months.
A slowdown in China led the list of what investors consider the biggest tail risks, cited by 30% of survey participants, up nine percentage points from the February survey. A trade war, last month’s top concern, dropped to second place, cited by 19% of fund managers, followed by a corporate credit crunch, cited by 10% of managers.
For the first time in the Merrill survey’s history, short European equities was the most crowded trade in March, named by 19% of investors. Eighteen percent cited long U.S. dollar, and 16% long FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google’s parent Alphabet) + BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent).