By Claire Milhench
LONDON (Reuters) - Fund managers have cut equity allocations to the lowest level since November 2016, with 60 percent of investors seeing a trade war as the biggest risk for markets, Bank of America Merrill Lynch's (BAML) latest monthly poll showed on Tuesday.
The bank's July 6-12 survey of funds managing $663 billion worldwide showed a 14 percentage point cut in equity exposure to a net 19 percent overweight, the lowest level since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
To view a graphic on BAML poll - global equity allocation, click: https://reut.rs/2NiIUun
BAML said investor conviction of a trade war being the biggest tail risk was the highest since concerns surrounding European Union sovereign debt funding in July 2012. Another 19 percent cited a hawkish policy mistake by the U.S. Federal Reserve or European Central Bank.
Trump has stepped up his attack on the U.S.'s key trading partners over the last month, rolling out tariffs against China and threatening more, while labelling the European Union a "trade foe".
China has accused the United State of bullying, warning it will hit back after Washington threatened 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. This followed tit-for-tat tariffs on $34 billion of each other's goods.
"Investor sentiment is bearish this month, with survey respondents eyeing the risks from a possible trade war," said Michael Hartnett, chief investment strategist at BAML. "Equity allocation has fallen notably while growth and profit expectations have slumped."
To view a graphic on BAML poll - Biggest tail risks, click: https://reut.rs/2JtVYL9
Profit expectations are now the lowest since February 2016, with a net 9 percent of respondents saying they do not expect an improvement in the next 12 months, down 53 percentage points since the start of the year.
Emerging market equity allocations were among the biggest casualties of the growing trade war fears. These suffered their biggest monthly drop in two years, taking the allocation down 23 percentage points to a net 1 percent underweight.
Emerging stocks <.MSCIEF> are down almost 8 percent year-to-date.
However, investors remained bullish on U.S. stocks, raising their exposure to a 9 percent overweight, the highest since February 2017. Conversely, the eurozone equity allocation fell to a net 12 percent overweight, the lowest since December 2016.
U.S. stocks <.SPX> are up about 4.6 percent so far this year after robust economic growth and large corporate tax cuts, while the European equity market has flatlined <.STOXX>.
So-called FAANG and BAT technology shares were identified as the most crowded trade for the sixth month in a row, cited by 53 percent of survey respondents. "Short EM equity" was cited by 12 percent and "long oil" by 10 percent.
The FAANG category includes Facebook <FB.O>, Apple <AAP.O>, Amazon <AMZN.O>, Netflix <NFLX.O> and Google <GOOGL.O>. BAT refers to China's Baidu <BIDU.O>, Alibaba <BABA.K> and Tencent <0700.HK>.
BAML said this was the most crowded trade outright since "long U.S. dollar" in 2015. The allocation to tech stocks rebounded 10 percentage points to a net 33 percent overweight in July, making it the most favoured sector of the month.
Conversely, banks suffered their biggest drop in global exposure in two-and-a-half years, down 17 percentage points to a net 3 percent overweight. BAML noted this was a 33 percentage point drop over two months and a two-year low, as the U.S. yield curve fell to a post global financial crisis low.
The allocation to UK equities rose to a net 18 percent underweight, the highest in over two years. Investor sentiment towards Britain has been poor since Britain voted to leave the European Union in June 2016 but sterling weakness has lifted equity markets in recent months.
In BAML's survey of European fund managers, a net 18 percent preferred to overweight France on a 12-month time horizon.
Italy, where two anti-establishment markets have formed a coalition government, remains the least favoured market in Europe, with a net 36 percent of investors saying they would underweight Italian stocks.
(Reporting by Claire Milhench; editing by Sujata Rao, Richard Balmforth)