The great quandary of the post-2009 rally has been the absence of the retail, or mom-and-pop, investor. Mutual fund flows are the most popular way to track retail involvement because they are more popular than individual stocks.
They have told a dismal story about confidence.
Some $600 billion has come out of equity funds since 2006, while $800 billion has gone into the comparative safety of bond funds. That trend has changed recently, with $35 billion back in stock-based funds in the past two weeks, $19 billion of which is in long-only funds.
"The past seven years have seen a Great Divergence in terms of fund flows," said Hartnett, whose firm is predicting a "Great Rotation" from bonds to stocks this year. "But recent data show the first genuine signs of equity belief in years."
If Hartnett is correct and the trend continues, it could bolster the argument that the Fed merely gave the economy and the markets the nudge they needed, and corporate America has done the rest.
"It's more than just the Fed. Stock market indices are where they are today because they've earned it," said Lawrence Creatura, equity market strategist and portfolio manager at Federated Clover Investment Advisors in Rochester, N.Y. "There hasn't been a lot of multiple expansion. However, there has been a lot of earnings growth since the troubles of the financial crisis."
Indeed, quarterly earnings for the S&P 500 reached a crisis nadir of minus-9 cents a share for the fourth quarter of 2008, when QE began, to an expected profit of $25.18 a share for the fourth quarter of 2012, according to Howard Silverblatt, S&P Capital IQ's senior index analyst.
Creatura looks at the steel industry as one place that will demonstrate fundamental economic growth and push a market higher beyond the Fed's machinations.
"We're in the middle of earnings season. We're learning more every day about the health of individual industries," he said. "It will be important to pick your spots. Not all industries are created equal."
But what of the end of the Fed involvement? Can the market stand on its own?
"In the very short term, investors would very likely perceive it as negative," Creatura said. "It's important to realize it probably wouldn't occur unless the economy was showing signs of strength."
The Fed also could be forced to shut down the printing presses if inflation gets out of hand, a condition that usually happens with little notice. If inflation surges and the economy is still weak, the Fed could find itself in an untenable situation.
"You'd want to be out of stocks. That's a bunch of baloney when they say (the end of QE) can happen gradually," Springer said. "As soon as they announce they're not going to keep printing money and pumping money in, that's going to be the end."