Everything You Wanted To Know About Bear Markets

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opens with one of the most famous lines in world literature: “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Similarly, we can say that all bull markets are alike, but every bear market has its own unique quirks.

As most of you know by now, the S&P 500 officially entered bear market territory on Monday after it closed more than 20% below the stock index’s all-time high set on January 3. The 50-day moving average has also fallen below the 200-day moving average, signaling a so-called “death cross.”

I believe this particular bear market has been in the works for months now. The economy is experiencing a major hangover from the trillions in liquidity that were printed to support businesses and consumers during the pandemic. Inflation is running rampant across the globe due to supply chain disruptions stemming from lockdowns, and investors are worried that central banks will act more aggressively than expected to put a lid on prices.

Today, in fact, the Federal Reserve hiked the interest rate by 75 basis points, the largest such increase since 1994, and the first time in recent memory that the bank has hiked at all during a stock bear market. A 50-75bp hike is expected at the next Fed meeting.

In past bear markets, it was sometimes simpler to identify the root cause. In 2020, it was pandemic lockdowns; in 2007-2009, the housing market meltdown (with an assist from a new accounting method, mark-to-market); in 2000-2002, the dotcom selloff.

I’m old enough to remember the Black Monday crash in 1987, when the S&P 500 fell more than 20% in a single session. Many people now blame computer trading and portfolio insurance, both still in their infancy and highly fallible. Because the U.S. economy was strong at the time, though, the bear market was relatively short-lived. (Remember, bear markets don’t necessarily lead to a recession.)