By Jeremy Gaunt, European Investment Correspondent
LONDON (Reuters) - Global investors cut back on equities in January in the face of worries about the economy, potentially tighter monetary policy and in reaction to last year's stellar gains.
Reuters poll of 44 leading investment houses in the United States, Japan, Britain and continental Europe showed an average portfolio holding 55.1 percent of its assets in equities.
This was down from 56.2 percent in December and level with what they held in March last year when the global rally in riskier assets began.
But the polls also suggested that investors had pulled back rather than fled. Holdings of both cash and bonds -- traditional homes in times of risk aversion -- eased.
Bond holdings were 33.7 percent compared with 33.8 percent in December while cash coffers dropped to 4.1 percent of a balance portfolio compared with 4.4 percent.
The remaining percentage of flowed into alternative investments such as property and hedge funds.
On average, meanwhile, the 44 respondents were moderately overweight in equities and neutral in all other major assets, suggesting that the long-term view of a recovering world economy is still in place.
"We should be a little bit cautious in the first half of the year. (For) the second half of the year, I would be quite optimistic," said Johannes Maier, head of asset allocation, fund of funds, at Germany's Postbank.
Investors, however, have been battered so far this year by worries about the removal of pump-priming liquidity from central banks and by rising sovereign risk, particularly in Greece.
On top of that, U.S. President Barack Obama's plans to scale back the clout of large banks threw additional uncertainty into the mix.
"A sustained rotation to more defensive areas of the market could occur if investors become concerned about exit strategies," said Chris Paine, associate director of asset allocation at Henderson Global Investors.
U.S. fund managers stuck with big bets on equities in January.
Eleven U.S.-based fund management firms held an average of 64.8 percent of their assets in equities, compared with 65 percent in December -- the highest point in 2009 for equity exposure.
The group also cut bonds. Respondents held an average of 29.4 percent in January, down a touch from 29.5 percent last month.
Cash was cut to 1.8 percent from 2.1 percent.
Continental European investors remained wedded to equities and other riskier assets.
The poll of 12 European-based asset management firms showed a typical mixed portfolio to hold 51.2 percent of its assets in equities to 36.8 percent for bonds and 5.3 percent cash.
Direct comparison with previous months was not possible because of changes in the sample, but the survey showed strong appetite remained for equities, alternatives such as hedge funds, and corporate bonds.
Japanese fund managers cut their average weighting for global equities.
The average stock weighting among 11 respondents stood at 45.8 percent. That is below 51.5 percent in December, possibly exaggerated by changes to the survey.
The weighting for global bonds rose to 48.1 percent, from December's 43.9 percent.
British fund managers eased back allocations to equities and bonds.
Allocations to equities among fell among 10 respondent to 58.7 percent in January, from 60.3 percent the previous month while bond allocations dropped to an average of 20.4 percent from 21.2 percent.
(Additional reporting by Bangalore Polling Unit, Jennifer Ablan in New York, Chris Vellacott in London and Akiko Takeda in Japan)