With just a few weeks of trading left, 2012 is looking a lot like 2011 in one key regard: Investors still don't believe in a stock market that keeps moving higher.
This year has been even more profitable than its predecessor, with the 12 percent gain in the Standard & Poor's 500 easily outdistancing the modest rise in 2011.
Still, volume remains low and money continues to pour out of equity funds and into fixed income and cash.
"If the party is so good...where is everybody?" Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx, asked in his daily market commentary Thursday. (Read More: Why Has Wall Street Gotten So Bullish About Next Year?)
The question has been asked often around Wall Street this year, with total equity fund outflows totaling $125 billion and nearly $300 billion pouring into bonds. Cash parked in money market funds, with near-zero interest rates, also has been on the rise, with $2.61 trillion tucked on the sidelines, according to the latest numbers from the Investment Company Institute.
Many theories have been expounded to try to rationalize the trend away from stocks.
For Colas, the most rational theory may be found in linguistics. While the current stock market qualifies as a "bull" under the conventional Wall Street definition of a 20 percent increase from a designated bottom, it sure hasn't felt like it.
Memories of the financial crisis still weigh heavily, while the general lackluster stock market performance over the past 13 years or so has made it hard to justify the risks.
"Bull markets are just as much about investor sentiment as price action. It's all about the shoeshine boy or the taxi driver dispensing stock tips to their customers and 'irrational exuberance'" and cocktail party chatter," Colas said. "By those measures, we remain in a bear market for U.S. stocks, regardless of what the price action may say."
Indeed, investor sentiment is a fickle thing.
While market trading volume has languished - down 19 percent this year for equities and 13 percent for options - investor sentiment enters December at its highest level since late March. Bullish sentiment is at 42 percent while the bears are at 34.6 percent, according to the latest poll from the American Association of Individual Investors.