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As Bulls and Bears Rage On, Many Investors Are Tuning Out

Even as a vigorous debate rages over the stock market's direction, increasing numbers of investors are finding themselves in camp with neither the bears nor the bulls.

They are believers in neither boom nor gloom. Selling is met with buying and buying is met with selling, though the buyers maintain the upper hand.

Summer vacation is over, but the beach crowds still haven't flocked back to the market. Volume remains below par by historic standards. An expected rise in volatility hasn't materialized.

So what's an investor to do?

"I am finding more and more people proceeding with caution," says Julie Murphy Casserly, president of JMC Wealth Management in Chicago and author of "The Emotion Behind Money: Building Wealth From the Inside Out." "They're very skeptical of anything that anyone says, any new news, what their employers are telling them, even what their banks are telling them."

As a result, the market has continued to move up, but incrementally.

A much-predicted correction off the massive rally over the past six months also has failed to take root, in part because of the continued need of fund managers who missed the surge to find any available entry points.

Yet the noise rages, and retail investors find themselves caught somewhere in the middle.

"Investor sentiment is very bifurcated in that there seems to be a relatively equal balance between some who will say we have to have a pullback while others are riding the wave," says Richard Sparks, senior analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati. "You don't have a lot of big money or even individual investors willing to commit a lot. They are still very skeptical of this rally."

Bulls outnumber bears about 2 to 1 nowadays, with bulls ahead 48 to 24 percent, according to the most recent survey by Investors Intelligence. The gap is high by historical standards but declining as of late and far below what would be expected during a typical strong bull market.

On the bright side, that level of disparity actually can be seen as fairly orderly market behavior and not indicative that a big swing the other way is in the cards.

"You really do have a nice balance here from a sentiment perspective that I think makes this rally much more sustainable," Sparks says. "Even though things are getting slightly more optimistic out in the investing world, there is still a healthy level of skepticism."

Portfolio managers are using a combination of techniques to combat the market misgivings.

Many are combining long and short strategies, using covered calls, pair trades and option puts to protect against downside movements. Short interest overall fell 2.4 percent in August, according to the latest data from the New York Stock Exchange, but caution remains a watchword even amid a 53 percent stocks rally.

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"Obviously there will be a pullback at some point—there always is," says Quincy Krosby, general market strategist at Prudential Financial. "With that said, this is why you go in and protect to the downside and you dollar-cost average into the market."

Though the buy-and-hold strategy has taken its share of hits in a market where the Chicago Board Options Exchange's Volatility Index topped out near 90 a year ago, Krosby says investors with a longer view now could benefit.

"This is the reason why individual investors are told to dollar-cost average, because you do not know when the market is going to pull back, you do not know when the market is going to gain steam," she says of the strategy to buy on dips and lower breakeven price points. "It allows you to benefit from scenarios of a pullback or correction."

Still, it can be hard for investors to sit tight when they see the market continue to push higher.

Advisors face the challenge of getting clients to focus on their goals and on strategies that will help them achieve their objectives.

One way is to ignore the broader market gyrations altogether.

"It's important to look at portfolios on a stock-by-stock basis," says David Kelson, partner and portfolio manager at Talon Asset Management in Chicago. "Be mindful of what's going on in the broader market but don't let the broader market dictate your actions."

Kelson manages Talon's core equity product and its long-short equity hedge fund and is telling investors to "remain steady."

"Part of figuring out markets and figuring out stocks is that the person who unlocks the puzzle first makes the most money," he says. "In periods of uncertainty where things are less apparent it becomes more critical for investors to maintain their discipline."

Casserly, of JMC, says her clients, even the ones who missed much of the rally or were late in life to start saving for retirement, are getting the message that it's best not to be governed by the market noise.

"If they're trying to make up for lost time, that's the problem, and they're getting in check with that real fast," she says. "Numerous clients were saying we have to be aggressive growth. Now their tune has completely changed."