Amid election jitters, many big funds stay aggressive but cash tempts

November 4, 2016 1:06 AM EDT

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S. October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid


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By Tim McLaughlin and Jamie McGeever

BOSTON/LONDON (Reuters) - Stocks are listing, bonds are drifting and suddenly gold is back in vogue. Global investors appear to be facing the prospect that next week's U.S. presidential election may not play out as they have been expecting.

Until last Friday, when the FBI said it had re-opened a probe of Democrat Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, the prevailing view among the investment set had her coasting to victory. And most investors have said in surveys they were more comfortable with that outcome than a victory by Republican Donald Trump.

Now, though, several polls depict an ever-tightening race as the clock counts down to Election Day on Tuesday, although the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Clinton still with a 6-point lead.

Investors generally see Clinton as a known quantity who would not make major changes that would upend financial markets, while Trump's positions have been difficult to nail down.

Yet against the tumultuous political backdrop, some of the biggest American stock funds remain either too sanguine, too confused or too focused on extending the bull market to guard against an Election Day result that could shock the world like the Brexit vote did in June.

U.S. large-cap mutual funds, which oversee $4 trillion in assets, are heading into the showdown for the White House with only a thin layer of cash to absorb any potential shocks from the stock market.

Gerry Sullivan, who runs USA Mutuals' $234 million Barrier Fund, said it would be hard to reposition his portfolio even if he knew the election results ahead of time.

"There is so much confusion," Sullivan said.

U.S. funds that invest in stocks with large market capitalizations are not showing any drastic moves toward precaution. Overall, they have only 3.1 percent of their assets dedicated to cash, according to the latest data from Morningstar Inc. These same funds held more cash, about 3.4 percent, before Barack Obama defeated John McCain in 2008.

Multi-asset investors are more defensively positioned, especially those outside the United States, according to the latest Reuters asset allocation poll. Funds in Europe held 8.1 percent of their portfolios in cash in late October, while U.K.-based funds had some 9.6 percent of their holdings parked on the sidelines.

"Investors are holding higher-than-normal levels of cash," said Mark Haefele, global chief investment officer for UBS Wealth Management in London, who oversees around $2 trillion in assets. "That's one way of hedging the uncertainty."

Nonetheless, Haefele said: "We've not seen significant de-risking around the election, but we have seen generally a consistent level of caution in the global client base."

With uncertainty about the outcome on the rise, a risk-off mood has enveloped markets around the world.

The S&P 500 index has declined for eight days in a row, its longest losing streak since the market crash in October 2008, while a benchmark for global stocks, the MSCI All-World Index, has dropped for seven of the last eight sessions. Both sit near four-month lows.

Safe-haven bonds, recently under pressure from expectations the U.S. Federal Reserve is on track to raise interest rates this year, have seen only a modest boost in the meantime, but gold has surged to a one-month high near $1,300 an ounce.

"The trades you're seeing in the market at the moment will go further in the event of a Trump victory," said Mike Bell, global market strategist at JP Morgan Asset Management in London. "You'd expect more downside to U.S. equities, the dollar and Treasury yields."

NOT AN "INVESTABLE EVENT"

More than half of the stock and bond fund managers polled by Northern Trust in the third quarter said they expected the election to cause a large increase in market volatility. Prices for certain S&P 500 index options expiring in the days after the election indicate a market swing of between 2 and 4 percent, in either direction, by then.

Still, portfolio managers sitting on a lot of cash, some with more than 20 percent of assets, say the stockpile is not a sign of worry about the outcome of the race.

"It's due to the diminished risk-reward profile of investment opportunities in a mature profit cycle," said Meggan Walsh, a portfolio manager at the $18 billion Invesco Diversified Dividend Fund. "We do not feel the election is an investable event."

Some value-oriented large-cap fund managers say the stock market is over-valued and they are on high alert for a market correction as the election coincides with a bull market nearing completion of its eighth year.

"It can be tempting to forget that nasty downturns happen with some regularity, and there is never a bell rung to announce their arrival," portfolio managers Arik Ahitov and Dennis Bryant recently warned investors in the $800 million FPA Capital Fund.

After Britain surprised the world with a vote to leave the European Union, the S&P 500 Index tumbled nearly 4 percent on June 24. It soon recovered, however, and had regained record territory by mid-August.

Even in Britain, the referendum's unexpected outcome has yet to show it has long-lasting effects for investors outside of the currency market, where the British pound has sunk to a three-decade low against the dollar. London's FTSE 100 index is up around 14-percent from its post-Brexit trough.

The FPA Capital Fund managers had nearly 28 percent of the fund's $800 million in assets in cash during the third quarter. They see the stock market as too expensive and are ready for a high level of panic, if that happens, according to their October letter to investors.

"An elevated level of forced selling, combined with a lack of liquidity, might result in challenges for many fully invested products such as index funds, many ETFs, and funds that have no to very low levels of cash cushions," the FPA Capital Fund portfolio managers said.

"In a down market, cash helps mitigate losses and affords one the opportunity to buy when others are being forced to sell, generally the best time to buy."

(Reporting by Tim McLaughlin in Boston and Jamie McGeever in London; Editing by Dan Burns and Leslie Adler)



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