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BofA Merrill Lynch Michael Hartnett

Investors moving out of equities as caution takes grip, says BofA Merrill Lynch survey

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Investors have scaled back risk taking in the past month, reducing exposure to equities and commodities while upping allocations to cash and bonds, according to the BofA Merrill Lynch Survey of Fund Managers for June.

Asset allocators have been adjusting portfolios in the face of falling world markets, significantly reducing their holdings in equities, according to the survey completed between June 3 and June 9. The net percentage overweight equities fell to 27 per cent from 41 per cent in May, with Europe leading the way. The proportion of investors underweight eurozone equities rose to a net 15 per cent from a net 1 per cent. The proportion of investors overweight commodities fell to a net 6 per cent from a net 12 per cent.
 
A net 18 per cent of asset allocators are now overweight cash. This represents the highest cash overweight level since June 2010 and a sharp move upwards from last month’s reading of a net 6 per cent. Investors have an average cash balance of 4.2 per cent of their portfolio, up from 3.9 per cent in May. The proportion of investors taking lower-than-average risk across their portfolios has risen to a net 26 per cent from a net 15 per cent in May.
 
Bonds, unloved throughout much of the past two years, have enjoyed a recovery during the past two months. A net 35 per cent of asset allocators are underweight bonds, compared with a net 58 per cent in April and 44 per cent in May.
 
Behind the shifts in allocations are concerns about sovereign debt funding in Europe, which investors have named as the biggest tail risk in this month’s survey. Investors have also lowered expectations of strong growth in global profits, but broad sentiment towards the global economy has stabilized. While economic optimism is down, investors are not pessimistic enough to be calling for a third round of quantitative easing (QE3). Nearly two-thirds of the panel says that they do not expect QE3.
 
“Investors are scaling back risk, but rather than capitulating, they are simply moving to neutral positions in equities, bonds and cash,” said Gary Baker, head of European equities strategy at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research. “Investor capitulation from risk assets is not yet visible despite higher cash levels and defensive rotation. Fears on global growth will need to rise further before hopes for QE3 can begin to be priced in,” says Michael Hartnett (pictured), chief global equity strategist at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research.
  
Investors are struggling to form a clear and consistent view towards emerging markets. While optimism towards emerging market equities as a whole is on the up, concerns over the direction of China’s economy continue to grow.
 
Allocation to emerging market equities fell in June, with a net 23 per cent of asset allocators overweight the region, down from a net 29 per cent in May. Looking ahead, however, emerging markets could become the preferred destination for investment once again.
 
A net 22 per cent of investors would most like to overweight emerging market equities, up from a net 16 per cent a month ago when the US was ranked number one. A net 29 per cent believes the outlook for corporate profits is more favorable in emerging markets than any other region, up from a net 19 per cent in May.
 
This optimism sits in contrast to evidence of growing pessimism towards China, the engine of emerging market growth. A net 40 per cent of regional fund managers from across emerging markets, Asia-Pacific and Japan, believe that China’s economy will weaken in the coming 12 months. This represents the most negative sentiment towards China in more than two years and a shift of 12 per centage points in the past month. Regional investors have reduced exposure to Chinese equities. A net 33 per cent of global emerging market investors are overweight China, down from a net 42 per cent a month ago.
  
Sentiment within Japan is recovering. Many domestic investors have shifted from bearish to strongly bullish about Japan’s economy in the space of two months. In April, immediately after the earthquake in the northeast of the country, the panel was evenly split between those predicting a weaker economy and those predicting a stronger economy. This month an overwhelming net 89 per cent of respondents in Japan predict a stronger economy.
 
Optimism on earnings has enjoyed a similar turnaround. In April, a net 33 per cent of domestic respondents predicted a decline in Japanese earnings per share over the coming year. In June, a net 54 per cent predicts growth in earnings. Contrary to colleagues in other regions, Japanese investors have been reducing their cash positions.
 
Global investors have yet to re-embrace Japan, however. A net 22 per cent of asset allocators are underweight Japanese equities, up from a net 17 per cent in May.
  
In line with the cautious, risk-averse tone of June’s survey, investors have reduced allocations to cyclical sectors such as Industrials, Discretionary and Materials. The largest reduction in allocations during the month was in Insurance, in the wake of claims stemming from a series of catastrophic events including earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes. The only sectors to see increased allocations were traditional counter-cyclicals Pharmaceuticals and Utilities.

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