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Investors’ fear of making this ‘fourth mistake’ is holding back stocks

Investors have shown an unusual antipathy to stocks this year, with sentiment indicators and fund flows showing a level of bearishness that Bank of America Merrill Lynch's equity research team terms "extreme."

Meanwhile, the S&P 500 is at the same level as 18 months ago. Over the past two months in particular, the market has done almost nothing.

Craig Johnson, head of technical analysis at Piper Jaffray, presents a psychological reason for the flatness.

The story, as Johnson tells it, begins at the beginning of 2016, when "people came into the year too long equities."

Amid a substantial drop into mid-February, those investors sold out of their positions — making their second-straight mistake.

The market soon bottomed, and stocks enjoyed a nice rally back from the lows, but investors refused to "get back on board," another miscalculation.

At this point, investors are still underweight stocks (a perception that BofAML data also showed) but don't yet have the nerve to pull the trigger and buy, Johnson said Tuesday on CNBC's "Trading Nation."

"Now they're at a point in time where they fear that if they step back into equities, they're going to make the fourth mistake in a row," Johnson said.

According to the technical analyst, the event that will drive such investors back into the market will be the resumption of all-time highs on the S&P 500. Since the S&P hit 2,135 about a year ago, that will happen if stocks manage to climb just 4 percent.

At that point, Johnson said, it will be clear that "any sort of correction is going to be over" — and as a result, "volumes are going to step up, and you're going to ultimately see investors fall back in love with equities once again."

Here's hoping that doesn't prove to be a fifth mistake.

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Brian Sullivan

Brian Sullivan is co-anchor of CNBC's "Power Lunch" (M-F,1PM-3PM ET), one of the network's longest running programs, as well as the host of the daily investing program "Trading Nation." He is also a frequent guest on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and other NBC properties.

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