LONDON (Reuters) - World investors increased cash holdings in January as they braced for a choppy year with markets buffeted by conflicting forces such as diverging monetary policy and rising geopolitical risks, a Reuters poll shows.
A monthly survey of fund managers in the United States, Japan, Europe and Britain found the average allocation to cash in balanced portfolios jumped 1-1/2 percentage points to 7 percent -- the highest since May 2012. Forty-four institutions took part in the poll.
Investors typically increase holdings of cash when they expect markets to fall, often at the expense of more volatile assets such as stocks.
The average allocation to equities remained unchanged at 48.2 percent, though bond holdings fell to 36.6 percent from 38.2 percent. Holdings of property were down to 1.9 percent from 2.6 percent while exposure to alternative assets, such as hedge funds and private equity, rose to 6.4 percent from 5.3 percent.
"The overriding feature for 2015 will be bouts of higher volatility and risk-off episodes that mean investors will need to be far more wary," said Ashok Shah, investment director at British investment manager London & Capital.
The polling period was dominated by the European Central Bank's announcement last week that it would start buying bonds under a 1 trillion euro quantitative easing program from March with the aim of stimulating euro zone growth and inflation.
In contrast, monetary authorities in the United States are widely expected to start raising interest rates, bringing an end to an era of monetary stimulus launched in response to the 2008-9 financial crisis.
Divergent monetary policies in major economies, geopolitical risk around Russia, a slowing Chinese economy and political uncertainty in Europe after Greeks elected an anti-austerity government, make markets unpredictable, investors said.
"Our portfolios have been long the dollar for some time," said Andrew Milligan, head of Global Strategy at Standard Life Investments. "With the ECB'S announcement on QE we are debating the extent of euro weakness in 2015-16, which partly reflects the decision the Fed will need to take on interest rates in a few months."
The poll was taken from January 16-29, during which time world stocks .MIWD00000PUS rose around 1.5 percent. The ECB's QE announcement, which had been widely expected, was on Jan. 22.
The U.S. S&P 500 index .SPX was little changed over the survey period, having retreated more than 3 percent from a record high set at the end of 2014.
Emerging market stocks .MSCIEF hit a six-week high and advanced more than 1.5 percent during the survey period, despite fallout from Russia's economic and political situation and worries about slowing Chinese economic growth.
U.S. fund managers recommended increasing cash allocations to their highest in over seven years, to 10.1 percent from 5.1 percent last month, the highest since at least May 2007.
British fund managers also boosted the amount of money kept in safe-haven cash as well as alternative investments.
Hedge funds and other alternative assets can benefit from volatile markets, in part because they are able to profit from falling prices through mechanisms not available to conventional funds, such as short selling.
Meanwhile, European investment managers placed their bets firmly on stocks in January, anticipating an imminent lift to corporate profitability from the ECB's stimulus measures.
Japanese fund mangers still want to put more than half their assets under management into bonds, despite falling yields, expecting a prolonged period of low interest rates around the world, the Reuters survey showed.
Reporting by Swati Chaturvedi and Siddharth Iyer; Editing by Catherine Evans