Money managers this month boosted the proportion of assets held in cash to the highest level since March 2003, when a global stocks rally began, a Merrill Lynch & Co. survey showed.

Fund managers worldwide cut their holdings of technology stocks to the lowest level in at least nine months, the brokerage said. They also added shares of drugmakers and utilities, whose earnings growth tends to be less reliant on economic expansion.

For the first time since Merrill began the monthly survey in April 2001, more investors said they expect global earnings growth to slacken in the next year rather than increase. Fund managers expect earnings-per-share to climb 5.6 percent in the coming 12 months, considerably less than the 8.1 percent increase estimated in July and the 9 percent growth predicted in June, the survey said.

The survey of 293 money managers, who together manage $940 billion in assets, was presented in London by the securities firm. The study was conducted Aug. 6-12.

Morgan Stanley Capital International Inc.'s World Index, a global equity benchmark, has slipped 4.6 percent this quarter amid concern economic growth is slowing as the U.S., the world's biggest economy, and the U.K. lifted borrowing costs and oil prices climbed to a record.

The proportion of funds held in cash this month was 4.8 percent, up from 4.2 percent recorded last month and 4 percent in June, the Merrill survey showed. The average holding in equities slipped to 50 percent from 53 percent in July, the lowest in more than a year.

More than half of fund managers questioned said the global economy may slow, up from 44 percent in June. Some 51 percent of respondents said earnings growth worldwide may weaken, up from 40 percent who said so last month, according to Merrill.

More investors are demanding companies return cash to shareholders rather than boost spending for the first time since Merrill began asking the question in June 2002. Forty-one percent of money managers said they would like businesses to increase dividends and share buybacks, while 31 percent favor higher spending.