Investors' cash holdings at 7-month highs

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Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Fearful of a looming tumble in stocks and bonds from multi-year highs, global investors have increased the share of safe-haven cash in their portfolios to the highest levels in seven months, while also raising allocation to property.

World stocks hit record highs earlier this month while Japanese shares, trading off the weak yen, are at 15-year peaks.

European bourses from Spain to Germany are up 10-20 percent year-to-date, thanks primarily to money-printing operations in Japan and the euro zone.

But with Greece possibly headed for default and euro zone ejection, and the U.S. Federal Reserve likely to raise interest rates for the first time in nine years, many reckon an upset is inevitable. Those fears have only grown since investors were burnt by a month-long bond sell-off that saw German 10-year yields surge to 0.8 percent from close to zero.

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The monthly Reuters survey of 44 fund managers and chief investment officers in the United States, Europe, Japan and Britain found the average recommended allocation to cash in global balanced portfolios rose one percentage point in May to 6.4 percent.

That is the highest since last November and a whisker below mid-2012 levels when the euro crisis was at its peak.

Conducted between May 18-28, the poll also found real estate allocations were upped to 2.1 percent of global portfolios, up from 1.8 percent last month and the highest since December 2014.

"We are in a positive environment for risk assets over the medium term, (but) over the next few months we anticipate volatility to remain at heightened levels," said Boris Willems, a strategist at UBS Global Asset Management, citing the U.S. interest rate uncertainty and Greece as risks.

"We therefore feel it is important to be tactical in our positioning in risk assets and keep powder dry to take advantage of opportunities arising from the increased volatility," Willems added.

The increase in cash came at the expense of equities, the share of which in global balanced portfolios slipped 1 percentage point to 49.5 percent, the lowest since January.

UK investors cut equity holdings to 48.9 percent, down from 54.3 percent in April and the lowest since August 2012, the survey found.

Bond weightings in global balanced portfolios were more or less steady at 36.6 percent.

An issue that is increasingly weighing on market sentiment these days is asset valuations, seen by many as too high given the abundance of risks.

Around a quarter of euro zone bonds are currently trading with negative yields while European equities are trading around 16 times forward earnings, near an 11-year high and significantly above long-term averages.

That recently prompted the European Securities and Markets Authority head, Steven Maijoor, to warn that "risks of over-valuation, both in equity markets and bond markets, were considerable."

Many investors agree.

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"I don't think there is any dispute (on whether assets are overvalued). A more interesting question is would be 'how long they can continue to remain expensive in the current ultra-supportive liquidity environment," said Rob Pemberton, investment director at HFM Columbus, noting he had cut bond weightings, in his portfolio.

"The rub though is that the more expensive are stocks and bonds, then the greater will be their fall if there are any central bank policy accidents or else exogenous geo-political shocks," Pemberton added.

Others are going further afield. Andrew Milligan, head of global strategy at Standard Life Investments contrasts German 30-year bonds yielding 1.2 percent with U.S. equivalents yielding double that or even Indian and Brazilian 30-year yields at 5-8 percent.

"There are opportunities to explore amongst developed and emerging bond markets therefore for pockets of value. It is the same in stocks and shares," Milligan added.

But where is someone in search of safety to go?

The stomach-churning sell-off this month in German bonds underscored how quickly traditional risk-free assets can turn toxic, saddling portfolios with losses.

The rise in cash holdings almost across the board would appear to indicate this remains a preferred haven.

British investors upped weightings to cash by 2 percentage points to almost a tenth of portfolios, the highest since October while European cash holdings were at 8.4 percent, a four-month high. Cash also rose slightly in U.S. portfolios.

"There are fewer and fewer obvious safe havens, margins of safety have disappeared in a great number of asset classes" said Alan Mudie, head of investment strategy at Societe Generale Private Banking.

He highlights thematic investments such as shares in companies benefiting from the demand for clean water in developing countries as relatively safe bets.

And there is always the dollar, which is likely to appreciate as the Fed hikes interest rates.

"Cash in dollars is not a high-yielding or high-potential asset but represents a real safe haven in this environment," Mudie added.