Time to sell? Survey finds fund managers optimistic

Uber-investor and Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) CEO Warren Buffett famously cautions that investors should "be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful." So what does that say about a new survey from Merrill Lynch that found fund managers are more optimistic about the global economy than they've been since 2003?

A net 75 percent of the managers surveyed said they believed the world economy will strengthen in the coming year, while 70 percent believe corporate profits will rise over the next 12 months, Merrill Lynch said in a statement. Cash balances are shrinking as the managers pour money into stocks, they said.
Yet there are reasons to be concerned, notes Michael Hartnett, chief global equities strategist at Banc of America Securities-Merrill Lynch. "A nagging lack of conviction about the durability of the recovery remains," he said in the statement.

The problem is that the tech sector and China are largely responsible for managers' moves into stocks. That compares with a "consensus" among those polled to avoid developed economies and bank stocks. Some of those trends are moderating but are nonetheless still pronounced, the survey found.

Could the Merrill Lynch survey be a contrary indicator, as Buffett's truism suggests? Well, the S&P 500 has fallen slightly since reaching 1,012 last week, its high point for the year. The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index -- nicknamed "the fear index" for its tendency to rise as stocks fall -- has been inching upward for much of the past month.

And it does seem that the approximately 200 managers in the survey were plenty fearful in March, when the S&P 500 hit bottom. That month's survey, taken over a stretch of days that saw global equity markets fall by 15.5 percent, found a net 41 percent of the investors polled were underweight stocks.

Of course, if they'd been buying U.S. stocks around the time of the March survey, they'd have made a 46 percent return.

As for Buffett, he began urging investors back into stocks last month. Repeating another of the folksy adages that have helped make him a household name, he cautioned: "If you wait for the robins, spring will be over."

In other words, it doesn't make sense to wait for prices to rise before buying stocks again. Have the managers in Merrill's survey gotten that message?
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