Why Is It Called a Bear Market and How to Trade It?

  • May 3, 2019

Why is it called a bear market? Watch our video to learn more.

Why Is It Called a Bear Market?

  • It's called a bear market when the stock market falls over 20% or more over the course of 2 months of more. The stock market is made up of the bulls and the bears. Bulls try to push price up and the bears try to counterattack by pushing price down.

Do you know why is it called a bear market? As you think about this question - which seems somewhat strange considering we're referring to both the stock market and a mammal we don't want to meet in the woods, the answer is pretty straight forward.

Put simply, bear markets happen when there is a 20% downturn or more in stock prices over a sustained period of time. Specifically over a two-month time frame or more.

Take the Dow Jones Industrial Average, for example; it hit its record high of 26,828.39 on October 3, 2018. If it fell 20 percent to 21,462.71, we would be in a bear market. 

What results are a loss in investor confidence and subsequent panic selling for fear of further losses. In the end, sadly, this fuels a vicious cycle of negativity and continued selling; welcome to the bear market (check out our stock market basics page).

1. Basics: Why Is It Called a Bear Market?

As I explained in other blog posts, what goes up must come down - similar to a roller coaster. This analogy can be applied to the stock market. A lot of times, the behavior of stocks follows a predictable pattern.

Think about a time when a sector is doing well; earnings are on point and confidence is high. Investors want to get in on this hot sector, so they purchase large amounts of stocks, prices continue to rise, more people jump in on the action, and life is good. We call this a bull market.

After a while, the mood changes and people start to become wary. This indecision or dare I say fickleness is reflected in the market. Investors are growing increasingly pessimistic and fear stock prices might start to reverse (bullish vs bearish and how to make money in any market).

What do they do? Well, they start to sell off their investments to protect their gains. Why is it called a bear market?

Sadly, panic selling can cause a chain reaction of widespread panic selling, akin to a domino effect. And this my friend, is the start of a bear market or the roller coaster ride down. The end result is a plummeting of stock prices, decreased trading activity and low dividend yields. 

Eventually, the downward ride levels out and we see investors coming back in to capitalize on the low stock prices. They reinvest in the market; confidence grows, prices rise and the ride upwards and transition to a bull market begins. 

why is it called a bear market

2. Where Did the Term Bear Market Come From?

To an outsider not familiar with the stock market, the terms bull and bear market might sound ridiculous. I know they did to me when I first started. Why is it called a bear market?

I fondly recall thinking “you can’t be serious, you’re referring to the stock market in terms of four-legged furry wild animals?" What the heck am I getting myself into here?” In fact, the terms are quite clever.

Think back to movies you have watched where a bear attacks; what way do they attack? Typically a bear will swipe its paws at its prey, hopefully not you, in a downward motion. That's why falling markets and stock prices are referred to as bear markets!

On the other hand, a bull market is opposite of a bear market; confidence is high, stock prices are rising and optimism is the prevailing mood of the investors. Now think of how a bull attacks its prey?

A bull attacks its prey by charging with their horns thrusting upward into the air; and this is where we get the term bull market.

Our trading room discuss safely trading in bear markets.

What Causes a Bear Market?

  1. There are several different causes for a bear market:
  2. Economic slowdowns
  3. Increasing unemployment
  4. Investor sentiment
  5. Bad company earnings
  6. Falling stock prices
  7. Asset bubbles
  8. Global manufacturing slowdown
  9. 2008 financial crisis: unforeseen
  10. Coronavirus: unforeseen

1. Indexes: Why Is It Called a Bear Market?

​Why is it called a bear market? For one thing, Index funds such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) or the S&P 500 (SPY) are usually good indicators of what the overall market is doing.

When they're red, it means the overall market is weak. If they are strong, then the overall market will be going higher. 

When the market is weak, it means that the majority of stocks are selling off. It doesn't matter if it is Apple, Tesla, Facebook, Amazon or Alibaba. When the market is strong, the prices of the majority of stocks will be going higher.

Similarly, if you hear someone say the market is “bearish” or “collapsing”, they're not referring to a specific stock. They mean the whole stock market is losing its value - all stocks together. 

The same is true for specific sectors. Take the pharmaceutical sector for example; when the pharmaceutical sector is weak, all of the other pharmaceutical companies are losing their value as well. 

Check out our trading service to learn more strategies to trade and be profitable in a  bear market.

why is it called a bear market

How Do You Know If Its Bullish or Bearish?

  • Here's a simple way to know if the market is bullish or bearish. When price action is above the moving average lines then the market is typically bullish. When the moving average lines cross downwards and price falls below then the market is typically bearish.

Why is it called a bear market? A 20% drop in a stocks price doesn’t automatically mean we’re heading towards a bear market (find out when to use a stop limit order vs stop loss).

What’s needed is a sustained period of lower lows in the major indices. Conventional wisdom says it usually lasts 18 months. In fact, the average length of a bear market is 367 days. 

Another key point to realize is that bear markets are accompanied by recessions; where the economy stops growing then contracts. End result is layoffs and high unemployment rates.

With this in mind, you can recognize a bear market if you know where the economy is in the business cycle. A bear market is unlikely if it’s just entering the expansion phase.

However, if the economy is in an asset bubble or investors are behaving with irrational exuberance, then rest assured it's probably time for the contraction phase and a bear market. 

1. Is It a Bear Market or Just a Correction?

As I mentioned earlier, what goes up must come down. It's the amount of downward fall that matters (how does shorting a stock work? Learn how).

If prices drop more than 20%, the fall is referred to as a bear market. Conversely, if the fall is only about 10%, this is referred to as a market correction. Hence the importance of knowing why is it called a bear market.

The purpose behind a market correction is just that; to correct something that has gotten a bit off course. In the case of the stock market, this simply could be an unjustified rise in price. 

What's more, market corrections tend to last no longer less than two months; whereas bear markets last longer than two months. To put this in perspective, between 1900 and 2013, we experienced 123 market corrections and 32 bear markets. In total, the average market correction lasted 10 months, with the average bear market lasting approximately 15 months. 

On a positive note, bear markets are typically shorter than bull markets, which surely bodes well for investors (read about the different types of stocks when trading).

Conclusion: Why Is It Called a Bear Market

If you didn't already know, the saying "It's not how much you make, it's how much you keep" came from bear markets. Unfortunately, a ferocious bear market can wipe out years of portfolio gains.

Having said that, it's very important you learn how to trade in bear markets. In fact, money can be made in a bear market. This is especially for those who short sell. Check out our blog for ways to make money in a bear market

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