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Bull and bear market trends

For all the advanced technology and complicated algorithms you see these days, there’s something undeniably primal about financial markets. Logic and research are vital tools but base instincts – fear, optimism, greed – play a significant role in market movements.

Perhaps that’s how two of the animal kingdom’s most fearsome creatures came to represents the extremes of market movements. Here’s what you need to know about bulls and bears.

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What are bull and bear markets?

In their commonly accepted definitions, a bear market occurs when prices drop by 20% or more from recent highs, while a bull market occurs when prices rise by 20% or more from recent lows. However, these terms are now often used to describe the current market direction.

Where did these terms come from? It’s thought to have something to do with the ways bulls and bears attack their opponents – bears swipe downwards while bulls thrust their horns upwards.

While there are many factors at play, bull and bear markets are both driven by a combination of economic conditions and investor sentiment. Rising unemployment, falling incomes, weak productivity growth and sluggish profits are all potential signs that a bear market may be imminent, while the conditions you’d expect to find during a bull market include a strong or improving jobs market, rising productivity and profits and greater household disposable income.

However, because markets tend to be forward-looking, bear and bull markets may begin ahead of real-world economic slowdowns. For instance, the post-GFC bull market in the US started in March 2009, while the US economy would remain in recession until the middle of that year and remained weak for several years after.

A market correction is another term associated with falling security prices, though it has a different technical meaning to a bear market.

A correction occurs when an index or the price of a security drops more than 10% from its highs but less than 20%, which, of course, is the point at which the fall enters bear market territory. Corrections are much more common than bear markets and tend to be shorter lived. According to a CNBC report, the average bear market in the S&P 500 has lasted around 13 months, compared to four months for the average correction.

What is a bearish market?

The definition of a bear market is one that has fallen in value by more than 20% for over a two-month period, during a period of widespread market pessimism. This fall is often due to investor fears about a country's economic outlook. A bear market can offer opportunities for traders to find a good entry position, and multiple short-selling opportunities.

Modern traders can trade a bear market by using popular derivative tools such as contracts for difference (CFDs). This type of market can come with many risks, and therefore, traders are advised to create an efficient bear market trading strategy in order to reduce losses as much as possible

Market downturns do not follow a set script and there is no sure-fire way to know exactly when one will begin. However, there are some tell-tale signs to look out for:

The market is over-valued: One way to get an idea of what’s in store for a market index or individual stock is to look at its price earnings (PE) ratio. This measure compares the price of a stock (or index) with its earnings – for instance, a PE ratio of 25 indicates that it will take 25 years for a company’s earnings to match the value of its price at their current levels. 

PE ratios tend to rise during the later stages of a bull market as investors become overly optimistic, which can lead to an over-valued market and increases the risk of a downturn. 

To use this measure, look at how the PE ratios of indexes or stocks compare to their long-run averages (15 for the ASX). It’s important to note that stock prices can remain inflated for a long time in some cases so a higher-than-average PE ratio doesn’t automatically mean there will be a downturn. As John Maynard Keynes said, “the market can remain irrational for longer than you can remain solvent”. 

Falling bond yields: Bond markets and stock markets traditionally tend to move in opposite directions. That’s because stocks are classified as higher-risk investments while bonds are regarded as “safe haven” assets, at least in countries like the US and Australia. 

When things are going well, investors move money from bonds and put it into stocks and when things are going bad, they pile back into bonds. Therefore, higher bond prices (which means lower yields) are a sign that investors are pessimistic about the economy or the outlook for markets. However, this dynamic has been complicated over the past decade by central bank stimulus efforts across the globe, which have pushed bond yields to record lows even as stocks have marched higher. 

Bad news: Negative trends like rising unemployment may be a sign of an impending downturn, as can disappointing company earnings results (think of the dot com bubble). But markets can also be driven by external events like disasters and geopolitical conflict, for example the 1973 oil strike, when lead to a stock market crash in the US.

Types of bear markets

There are a number of different types of bear markets. These tend to have a different length, impact and subsequently, recovery time. This is because different bear markets produce different kinds of recessions, some of which are more damaging in the long-term to a country's economy. Here, we explore three different types of bear market that are commonly witnessed.

Cyclical bear market

A cyclical bear market tends to happen at the end of a business cycle, where there appear to be high inflation rates and rising interest rates, along with declining overall profits. This results in a damaging outlook for economic growth and future potential. This type of medium-term bear market declines less than structural bear markets and lasts for around 25 months on average.

Structural bear market

A structural bear market is associated with stock market bubbles and imbalances within the economy. An example of a structural bear market would be the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis. These types of bear market are usually linked to banking crises, where they over-extend debt loans to individuals. A structural bear market tends to last the longest, with an average length of 3.3 years and recovery time of 9.2 years.

Event-driven bear markets

This type of bear market is triggered by global events that have an impact on the economy, including wars, oil shocks, pandemics and even terrorist attacks. Some examples include the Covid-19 virus and 9/11 terrorist attacks. Event-driven bear markets tend to decline the least and recover so the fastest, so it is the shortest form of bear market.

Bear market characteristics

Below are some characteristics of a bear market that analysts and economists look out for. Spotting two or more of these circumstances is a good indication that the economy is entering (or has entered) a bear market.

  • Stock prices start to fall.
  • Negative investor sentiment. Investors sell current holdings and hold off on buying more shares.
  • Economy spending declines, leading to deflation.
  • Corporate earnings decrease.
  • Higher unemployment levels and cut to research and development.

What is a bullish market?

The bottom of a bear market is usually only identifiable in hindsight – there’s no official proclamation from the ASX or Standard and Poor’s declaring that it’ll all be plain sailing from here.

However, there will be similar signals to those in place at the onset of bear markets, although they will be inverted – rising bond yields, low PE ratios and improving economic or political news are all potential signs a bull market may be underway.

On a technical basis, indexes will start to move above their 200-day moving averages while volatility will start to drop. To learn more about moving averages and other analysis tools, check out our Technical Indicators page.

Picking the exact bottom of the market is, of course, close to impossible, but recognising early on that a market has turned can lead to significant gains. To get an idea of what can happen, take a look at Macquarie Group, which dived as low as $15.49 per share in March 2009, only to rise more than threefold to $50 per share in September. By late 2019, the shares were trading for $130 per share.

Of course, getting the timing of a turnaround wrong or investing in the wrong companies can lead to significant losses. As always, it’s important to do your research and be aware of your own financial situation.

Bear vs bull market

Essentially, bull and bear markets are either going significantly up or down in value and market capitalisation. A popular bull and bear market definition traces the terms back to how each animal attacks. Bulls drive up with their horns. Bears rake down with their claws.

In a bull market, share prices rise steadily off the back of investor confidence. This confidence increases demand and keeps supply low. A characteristic of a bull market is that price action is usually steady without major whips and stalls. It can continue in this fashion for many years; however, markets cannot remain bullish forever. The balance between demand and supply will naturally change leading to price corrections. They are not always severe enough to be classified a bear market.