America's wealthy are moving to cash as market enthusiasm hits a wall

  • A CNBC survey finds that millionaires are more likely to increase cash and bonds than stocks in the next year.
  • Wealthy investors age 55 and under, as well as investors with $5 million or more, are the most likely groups to be pulling back on U.S. stocks.
  • These investors may be amassing dry powder for better opportunities to buy into the market.

In 2017 nearly every stock market around the world was up, and the term "synchronized global growth" was trending among investors. Now with markets around the world teetering on correction levels — from Argentina and Brazil to Germany, India and China — and White House officials saying President Donald Trump will proceed with his trade war regardless of stock market impact, many wealthy investors see the stock market hitting a short-term wall and they are increasing their focus on short-term investments.

Bull hitting wall
Miguel Riopa | AFP | Getty Images

The latest CNBC Millionaire Survey, conducted in April by the Spectrem Group, found more millionaires saying their short-term investments are going up, as well as more wealthy investors unwilling to commit more to the stock market in the next year.

The survey studied 750 Americans nationwide with $1 million or more of investable assets. Respondents were both male and female, with political affiliations to the Republican, Democratic and Independent parties. It is the first CNBC survey to gauge the investing sentiment among America's wealthy since market volatility picked up in 2018.

The results reinforce recent signals in the market rather than serving as a surprise. Global equity funds experienced their biggest outflows since October 2008 in June, and equity fund investors across the board have been pulling money out of the U.S stock market at a rapid rate. But the gap between wealthy investors who plan to add to stock exposure in the next year and those who do not is overwhelmingly wide: Across all millionaires surveyed, only 17 percent said they will add to stock exposure in the next year, while 25 percent said they plan to increase short-term holdings.

In a related survey finding, less than half of the wealthy expect the U.S. economy to end the year stronger, and confidence in the S&P 500 dropped by 20 points since the last survey, in fall 2017.

The move out of stocks and into safer investments is most pronounced among younger millionaires and high-net-worth investors. Thirty-eight percent of millionaires age 55 and under said they will increase short-term investments — cash, money market accounts, CDs, treasury bills, checking/savings accounts. Meanwhile, 34 percent of investors with $5 million or more in investable assets said they will increase short-term holdings.

These two segments of wealthy America said they are more likely to increase fixed-income holdings: 35 percent of millionaires age 55 and under and 37 percent of investors with $5 million or more to invest.

A good time to add some dry powder

Across all millionaires, investments to short-term holdings and fixed income, rather than equities, are more likely to increase, according to the CNBC survey. The view from millionaire investors does not portend a sustained pulling out of equities, and the data does not show a drastic reevaluation of portfolio allocations or long-term investment goals. Financial and investment advisors suggested that the increased short-term investments reflect, among other things, wealthy individuals waiting for a better opportunity to buy into the market rather than uber-bearishness.

Doug Boneparth, president of New York City-based Bone Fide Wealth, said investors age 55 and under do need more short-term money, because their lives include more variable expenses, such as children and college, than older investors. However, he thinks having learned the lessons of 2008, these investors do have some dry powder. He also noted that in the rising interest-rate environment, money market accounts now look much more attractive with yields pushing above 2 percent and, in the least, chip away at money that would otherwise go into bonds that are yielding only slightly higher.

Boneparth advises investors to distinguish between cash holdings and investment holdings. "A cash reserve is exclusive of an investment portfolio," he said. "If $150,000 of a $1 million individual retirement account is in cash, that's too high, that will drag down returns over time. But I do wonder if it is dry powder. People are waiting," Boneparth said.

"My sense is that younger investors are more likely to raise cash to compensate for tying up funds in long-term, illiquid investments and to do their own version of market-timing, waiting for stocks to correct and then buying opportunistically," said Mitch Goldberg, investment advisor and president of Melville, New York-based ClientFirst Strategy.

Younger millionaire investors and the high-net-worth segments are more likely to maintain exposure and plan to increase investments in international stocks and alternative investments.