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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Trading Nation is a multimedia financial news program that shows investors and traders how to use the news of the day to their advantage. This is where experts from across the financial world – including macro strategists, technical analysts, stock-pickers, and traders who specialize in options, currencies, and fixed income – come together to find the best ways to capitalize on recent developments in the market. Trading Nation: Where headlines become opportunities.

Michael Santoli

Michael Santoli joined CNBC in October 2015 as a Senior Markets Commentator, based at the network's Global Headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.  Santoli brings his extensive markets expertise to CNBC's Business Day programming, with a regular appearance on CNBC's “Closing Bell (M-F, 3PM-5PM ET).   In addition, he contributes to CNBCand CNBC PRO, writing regular articles and creating original digital videos.

Previously, Santoli was a Senior Columnist at Yahoo Finance, where he wrote analysis and commentary on the stock market, corporate news and the economy. He also appeared on Yahoo Finance video programs, where he offered insights on the most important business stories of the day, and was a regular contributor to CNBC and other networks.

Follow Michael Santoli on Twitter @michaelsantoli

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