What is a bear market?

What is a bear market and how is it different to a market correction? Let's explore…

shadow bear with woman terrified and a falling share price

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Introduction to the bear market 

During bear market periods, investing and wealth management can be risky even for the most seasoned investors.

A bear market is a period of falling share prices. The technical definition is a 20% or more decline in share prices over at least two months.

In a bear market, investor confidence is extremely low. Many investors opt to sell their shares for fear of further losses, thus fuelling a vicious cycle of negativity.

Bear market phases

Bear markets typically begin when investor confidence starts to wane following a more robust trading period and rising share prices.

As investor sentiment grows increasingly pessimistic about the state of the market, investors tend to sell off their investments to avoid losing money from the falling share prices that they anticipate.

This behaviour can cause widespread panic, and share prices can plummet when it does. Trading activity tends to decrease, as do dividend yields when this happens.

At some point during a bear market, investors will typically try to capitalise on the lower stock prices by reinvesting in the market.

As trading activity increases and investor confidence begins to grow, a bear market can eventually transition to a bull market.

Origin of the term 'bear market'

The term 'bear market' relates to the manner in which a bear tends to attack.

A bear will usually swipe its paws in a downward motion upon its prey, and for this reason, a market downturn with continually falling share prices is called a bear market.

Bear market vs. bull market

A bull market is marked by strong investor confidence, economic growth and optimism. In a bull market, share prices go up.

The term 'bull market' is derived from the way a bull attacks its prey. Bulls tend to charge with their horns thrusting upwards into the air, so trading periods dominated by continually rising share prices are called bull markets.

Unfortunately for investors, bull market periods that last too long can give way to bear markets.

Bear market vs. market correction

A market correction is like a bear market but less severe. The technical definition is about a 10% decline in share prices in less than two months.

The idea behind a correction is that falling prices serve to 'correct' the situation because prices have risen higher more quickly than they should have.

One significant difference between a bear market and a market correction is the extent to which prices fall. Bear markets occur when share prices drop by 20% or more, whereas corrections typically involve price drops of about 10%.

Furthermore, market corrections tend to last less than two months, whereas the average bear market lasts two months or longer.

Examples of bear markets in Australia

There are several real-world examples of bear markets here in Australia. 

In more recent times, the All Ordinaries Index (ASX: XAO) plummeted from an all-time high of 7,255.20 on 20 February 2020 to 4,564.10 by 23 March 2020, shedding 37% in the space of a month as global markets reacted to the coronavirus pandemic.

But this isn't the only (or the sharpest) sell-off the Australian share market has experienced.

The bear market with the steepest fall occurred in 1987, sparked by the infamous Black Monday. This was the name given to the day the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index (DJX: .DJI) in the United States lost almost 22% and marked the beginning of a global stock market decline.

Black Monday hit Australian shores on Tuesday, 20 October, resulting in the ASX losing 26% in a single day. From the beginning of October 1987 to 13 November 1987, the All Ords fell by 50%.

The global financial crisis (GFC), sparked by a cratering housing market and credit crunch in US financial markets, saw the All Ords fall by 55% over 14 months, from its peak in November 2007 to its market bottom in early March 2009.

Other examples include the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which sparked the Great Depression, and the bear market that followed the dot-com bubble collapse in the 2000s. This saw the All Ords lose 21% of its value between March 2002 and March 2003.

Another occurred in the 1970s in response to the quadrupling of oil prices by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which prompted a US recession. That bear market lasted 19 months (from February 1973 to October 1974) and saw the All Ords plummet a whopping 58%.

This article contains general educational content only and does not take into account your personal financial situation. Before investing, your individual circumstances should be considered, and you may need to seek independent financial advice.

To the best of our knowledge, all information in this article is accurate as of time of posting. In our educational articles, a 'top share' is always defined by the largest market cap at the time of last update. On this page, neither the author nor The Motley Fool have chosen a 'top share' by personal opinion.

As always, remember that when investing, the value of your investment may rise or fall, and your capital is at risk.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.