As we continue to trudge our way through this anemic recovery, investors everywhere are extremely skittish. While economic data shows that the economy is in fact growing, it’s not growing by very much. And with the housing market stuck in the doldrums and unemployment staying stubbornly high, many folks are convinced we never really emerged from the recession, but are merely stuck inside a longer, more protracted downturn. And that pessimism is showing up in the stock market.

Still running scared
According to the latest Bank of America Merrill Lynch fund manager survey, investment managers are dumping U.S. stocks at rates not seen since 2008. Data from August show that a net 14% of survey respondents are underweight U.S. equities, compared with a net 7% that were overweight U.S. stocks in July. Along with domestic stocks, Japan has been getting the cold shoulder from investors as well, as money flowed out of that nation and into other developed economies like the U.K. The survey also showed that managers are moving back into European and Chinese stocks as concerns over slowing growth in those regions have waned.

But don’t go dumping your U.S. stocks in favor of bonds or European equities just yet. One thing to remember about this monthly fund manager survey is that it is highly volatile. Especially in times of rapidly changing investor sentiment like this, managers’ outlooks can change from month to month. That means all it would take is a handful of positive economic data for optimism to swing back and for U.S. stocks to appear more attractive.

And more importantly, consider what it means that investors are selling stocks at roughly the same levels as they were in 2008. That was a time of panic and uncertainty, when many people were convinced that our financial system was on the verge of collapse. Fear ran rampant and investors fled the market in search of the safety of Treasury securities. But then what happened next? A hard-core rebound in 2009, as the market gained roughly 26%, its best showing since 2003, when the market bounced back after three consecutive bear market years from 2000 to 2002.

Now I’m certainly not predicting those kinds of gains either later this year or in 2011. But historically, when investors are net sellers of U.S. equities and pessimism reigns, that tends to be a bullish signal for the market more often than not.

A glass half-full
To be clear, I don’t want to downplay the risks to the economy right now. It’s true that we’re walking a fine line. The risk of falling back into recession is higher now than it was four months ago. Housing shows few signs of improvement, and the labor market remains incredibly weak, with blue chips Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), Boeing (NYSE: BA), and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) all announcing layoffs in recent months. But manufacturing and service sector data from the Institute for Supply Management show that both areas of the economy are in fact expanding, use of capacity is rebounding, and inflation remains tame. A robust rebound this is not, but it’s a jump to say that continued recession is inevitable.

I can’t rule out the possibility of another market dip, even a severe one, in the next few months, but I don’t think investors should ditch stocks now. Given the massive amount of money that has moved into bonds and flowed out of the stock market in recent years, there is still plenty of room for long-term equity appreciation. Growth in the coming years won’t be overwhelming, but the odds of bonds continuing to beat stocks over the next decade are pretty slim. If you’re hesitant about getting back in the stock market, probably the easiest thing to do is to use an inexpensive broad-market exchange-traded fund to pick up some broad market exposure. That’s a pretty painless way to dip your toes back into stocks.

A healthy outlook
If you’re looking for more targeted exposure to some potential winning areas of the market, I’d recommend looking at the health-care sector. General prices in this area of the market are still pretty low, thanks in part to concerns over how reform efforts will affect the sector. But given long-term demographic trends, odds are good that select health-care companies will draw increasing demand for their products and services down the road. Some attractive candidates include:

Company

P/E Ratio

Dividend Yield

Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT)

14.8

3.5%

Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY)

14.4

4.9%

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ)

12.2

3.7%

Source: Yahoo! Finance. 

Each of the stocks listed above also earns a five-star rating from our Motley Fool CAPS community, so we’ve got the collective wisdom of our highly experienced network of investors solidly behind these rising-star health-care picks. 

So while it may seem like everyone around you is becoming bearish on U.S. stocks, make sure you’re not blindly following the crowd. If history is any indication, just when investors get to the point of giving up on stocks and going into hiding, that’s when the real money is likely to be made.

For more investing and personal financial planning tips, check out the Fool's Rule Your Retirement service, which provides top-notch retirement and mutual fund advice. You can start your free 30-day trial today.

Amanda Kish is the Fool's resident fund advisor for the Rule Your Retirement newsletter. At the time of publication, she did not own any of the funds or companies mentioned herein. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Johnson & Johnson is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended diagonal call positions on Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson. The Fool has a disclosure policy.