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Bear markets: how long they last and how to invest during one

We’re often told that investing is risky. But it’s during wild bear markets that the risk truly hits home.

Most people can handle a 5% temporary loss when the market drops. That’s easily reversed.

Even 10% down only smarts a little.

But when the market caves 20%, our belief in solid ground can start to crumble.

We realise the bottom could be a long way down. The risk feels real.

Like most of our fears though, the way to confront a bear market is not to let it gnaw at us with ill-defined menace. The risk is best handled by understanding it, knowing your options, and having confidence that this too will pass.

What is a bear market?

A bear market occurs when the closing price has fallen 20% from its previous peak in an investable market. This bear market definition can apply to a global market, a single stock market, any other asset class (such as property, bonds, gold, or other commodities), or even a single share. 

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adds the caveat that the decline should last two months [1] or more to qualify as a bear market.

The media is more likely to raise the alarm though as soon as an important market dips 20%. Typically a 20%-plus decline in a broad market index like the US S&P 500 is taken as proof that a bear market is underway. 

That drop is interpreted as a bellwether indicator that investor confidence is evaporating and the contagion could spread. Even though another market such as the FTSE All-Share (or your own portfolio) may not yet be in bear market territory. 

And history and experience tells us that bear markets can plunge much further than 20%. The UK’s worst bear market in the past century was the -73% stock market crash of 1972-74 [2].

Investing in a bear market is scary because it can herald large-scale wealth destruction which lasts for years or even decades. That can trigger panic-selling [3], which has damned the financial future of many a poor soul.

It’s critical you keep your head during the bleakest hours because most bears are relatively short-lived and transform back to bulls in time – as we’ll see below.

What a bear market looks like

We can see the impact crater gouged by the Global Financial Crisis [4] in the chart below. It was one of the severest bear markets of the modern era.

The chart highlights all the main features of a bear market:

A graph showing the bear market entry point, trough, rallies, and recovery of the Global Financial Crisis [6]

Source: justETF [7]: Performance of iShares MSCI World ETF October 2007 – March 2010. Dividends reinvested.

The MSCI World ETF entered bear market territory on 6 October 2008. Like many bear markets the fall unfolded over months. The MSCI World had dropped 24% from its previous peak a year earlier at this point. 

Along the way, bear market rallies offered hope the worst was over. However they fizzled out on 6 November 2008 and 5 January 2009. 

And just when you thought it was safe to go back into the stock market, equities plummeted to new lows.

The market bottomed out at -38% on 6 March 2009. Almost 17 months after the fall began. 

Technically this trough marked the end of the bear market. That’s because prices subsequently recovered to a new peak. 

But you couldn’t have known this was the turning point at the time. The news was dreadful, day upon day.  

We had no guarantee this was the floor – as this contemporaneous dispatch [8] from The Investor reveals.

The market climbed back out of the hole and reached breakeven on 9 March 2010. (In nominal terms. Breakeven after inflation took until 2013).

The exact date of recovery is weirdly difficult to pin down. Living, breathing investors like us should incorporate dividends, inflation, and investment costs into our results before celebrating the vanquishing of a bear market.

Are bear markets normal? 

Yes, bear markets are relatively common. Vanguard’s data [9] for the UK stock market shows it in bear territory for 11.3 years out of 76, or 15% of the time from 1945 to 2021.

The graph below shows the MSCI World stock index suffered six bear markets from 1970 to 2020. We added another bear market due to the pandemic in 2020.

And we’re in bear market territory now once you factor in inflation.

A MSCI World graph shows that bear markets are normal. There were six such downturns from 1970 to 2020. [10]

Source: BRWM [11]: Today’s market falls in the context of history. Data from Morningstar.

Unfortunately, bear markets are the price of admission when you seek the opportunity to earn big gains from equities. 

These periodic declines are shocks to the system that drive investors to demand an equity premium [12] for bearing the risk of holding volatile assets.

If these risks didn’t materialise occasionally, then everyone would put most of their money in shares. And in such a world, equities would eventually earn a miserable, cash-like return.1 [13]

Crashes are as necessary as forest fires. They’re fearsome at the time but they set the stage for future growth.

The grey line in the graph above shows the growth of £1 invested in equities over the years. The risk is clearly worth taking.  

But those setbacks marked by those deep orange slashes are why investing is a long-term [14] game.

Does a bear market mean recession?

A bear market does not necessarily mean a recession. According to fund manager Invesco’s paper [15] on S&P 500 bear markets, only eight out of 17 bear markets coincided with a recession from 1927 through 2021.

In other words, the majority of bear markets do not signal a recession.

Moreover, recessions often rear their ugly heads without the stock market tail-spinning into despair.

According to Vanguard [16]:

A bear market occurred in only three of the last 14 US recessions, and positive equity returns accompanied seven of those recessions.

Bear v bull market

Bull markets [17] follow bear markets because the widely accepted definition of a bull market is a 20% investment price rise that follows a previous 20%-plus drop. 

A bull market is ended by the next sustained 20% or more drop. So bears punctuate bulls like extinction events in the fossil record.

A Vanguard analysis [16] reveals the frequency of bear markets from 1980-2020 (MSCI World index):

A chart that shows the frequency of bear v bull markets in global equities from 1980 to 2020 [18]

The numbers show that the bear market vs bull market contest is a walkover for the good guys. 

Bulls dominate bears over the long-term both in duration and performance. 

World bear v bull market score (% of total years)

This pattern holds for the UK stock market 1945-2020:

A chart showing the frequency of bear and bull markets in UK stocks (1945-2020) [19]

Source: Vanguard [9]: Bull and bear markets over time (UK).

UK bear v bull market score (% of total years)

And it holds in the US, too (1900-2020):

This chart shows the frequency of bull and bear markets in US stocks (1900-2020) [20]

Source: Vanguard [21]: Bull and bear markets over time (US).

US bear v bull market score (% of total years)

Another definition of a bull market requires prices to rise to new all-time highs on top of the minimum 20% lift from the last bear market low. 

Variable definitions – plus data discrepancies – explain why you’ll see different dates and results for bear and bull markets, depending on the source. 

Global bear markets may even disappear from the record altogether when viewed from the vantage point of the UK, as opposed to the US. 

For example, US investors have experienced nine global bear markets since 1980 [22], according to Vanguard: 

A global equities chart showing US investors experienced 9 bear markets (1980-2020) [23]

But four of those bear markets vanished when Vanguard analysed the same data in pounds [24]:

A global equities chart showing UK investors experienced 5 bear markets (1980-2020) [25]

Some of the discrepancy is likely explained by the fact that the pound tends to fall during a crisis while the dollar appreciates. 

Hence UK investors with a global portfolio dominated by US shares may be spared the worst. Sterling’s weakness is like a buoyancy aid for our US assets, providing a partial hedge against the state of the UK economy.

In this scenario, currency risk [26] works for you. And it’s one reason why UK investors may be better off not currency hedging their equities.

Incidentally, on the Richter scale of fear, a market ‘correction’ is one level down from a bear market.

As uneasy is to alarmed, a market correction occurs when investment prices drop 10% to 19.99% from previous highs.

How long do bear markets last?

Bear markets last 30.2 months on average for global equities between 1900 and 2019. The shortest bear market was three months (1987’s Black Monday) and the longest was eight years and 11 months (World War One plus its prelude and aftermath).

The average bear market lasts 25 months, if we remove the WW1 and 1987 outliers. That’s according to Global Financial Data’s [27] table of global bear markets:

A table showing the length of global bear markets 1900 to 1919 [28]

Why is the two and a half year average length of a global bear market so much worse than Vanguard’s 1.1 years quoted for the UK and US earlier in the article?

Well, the UK data series we cited began after both World Wars while the US emerged from each conflagration comparatively unscathed. In fact, both country’s stock markets had a good 20th Century, relative to rivals. 

Interestingly, contemporary bear markets look no less severe than the sepia-toned crises of pre-1950.

Investors were down -50% and -55% in the depths of the Dotcom bust and the Global Financial Crisis. That exceeded the losses inflicted on stock markets during the World Wars. 

Every bear market from the Vietnam War onwards was over inside two years – except the 30-month implosion of the Dotcom bubble. 

The WW2 bear markets and the 1929 crash lingered around three years, but they are easily outdone in the annals of misery by WW1’s ghastly nine-year slump.

However, we can never really know how long a bear market will last. 

So it’s best to gain as many historical perspectives as we can.

If we really want a scare, then Global Financial Data says the longest US bear market in history lasted 51 years [29] from 1792 to 1843.

The longest UK bear market in history stretched an agonising 42 years [30] from 1720 to 1762. Back then the London Stock Exchange fell 74% when the South Sea Bubble burst.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take ancient bear market history very seriously? The losses inflicted on bewigged speculators trading in 18th Century coffee shops may not seem to hold many lessons in the age of central bank bazookas. 

Not so fast! The fallout from Japan’s 1989 asset bubble bursting inflicted not one but three lost decades on that nation’s market.

Some argue the ensuing bear market is still ongoing. But I estimate the main Japanese stock market index recovered to breakeven in February 2021 – adjusted for inflation and dividends.2 [31]

Either way, this piece explains why most Japanese investors [32] weren’t as badly mauled as a multi-decade bear rampage implies. In the real-world, investors don’t invest everything they’ve got in a single market on the very eve of disaster.

Still, check out this horror show of investing’s biggest falls [33] if you like tingling your spine.

Investing in a bear market

The length of time you can spend trapped in the jaws of a bear suggests that special investing tactics are required.

Indeed, I came across a popular investment site that offered:

Do not do any of this.

Defensive stocks (as represented by low volatility ETFs [34]) are so much bear bait. They still go down in a stock market crash. They perhaps won’t fall as hard as high-risk growth equities, but defensive stocks are not a safe haven like bonds and gold can be.

Inverse or short ETFs are designed for professional investors betting on a market fall on a particular day. They can seriously backfire on passive investors who mistakenly think these products are useful during a prolonged bear attack. Read this piece on how short ETFs [35] work if you want to know why.

Put options are also like playing with fire. Puts can be profitable if you’re a semi-pro investor. But you must also be prepared to take large losses when your positions blow up. If that’s you, then I’ll hand you over to Early Retirement Now’s material [36] on the topic.

A passive investor learning this stuff in a bear market? It’s like walking into a casino half drunk.

Even fund professionals can’t outmanoeuvre a bear market.

Morningstar analysed active management performance [37] versus simple US and global tracker funds [38] during the latest slump. The active fund managers lost.

So forget market timing or switching up your asset allocation.

Instead, there are some straightforward but powerful techniques that can help you through a bear market…

How to invest during a bear market 

Bear market recovery times make for depressing reading. But the goods news is your bounce-back will be fast-forwarded by something you’re probably already doing: pound cost averaging [39].

Regularly investing over time shortened the UK’s longest bear market recovery time by a third. 

Do nothing and the UK market took nine years to breakeven after the 1972-74 stock market crash. (In real, inflation-adjusted terms, including dividends). 

However, the recovery period was reduced to six years by pound cost averaging.

Let’s consider an investor back in the 1970s who made regular annual contributions worth 3% of the portfolio’s initial value. For example, suppose £3 was contributed per year into a £100 portfolio, as depicted in the table below. (That’s equivalent to £3,000 in a £100,000 portfolio.)

As the table illustrates, their portfolio was back in the black by 1980 instead of 1983 with just these relatively modest contributions:

A table showing that pound cost averaging cut recovery time by a third after the UK's worst bear market (1972-74) [40]

Most people who invest regularly do so monthly, but I don’t have access to UK monthly returns.

Nonetheless, this annual approximation shows the power of pound cost averaging to accelerate a recovery as the market rises again. 

Six years is still a long time to wait, but it’s substantially better than nine.

And you could have sped up the recovery by investing even more. This is especially feasible when you’re a relatively young investor, and your portfolio hasn’t yet grown to a size where new contributions won’t move the dial to the same extent.

Automatic remedial action

Pound cost averaging is underestimated because it enables us to do the right thing without agonising over it. 

Much as we know we should buy stocks on sale, for instance, it’s much easier to say than do. It takes courage to fling money at a bear market when you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. 

But automating the process with a monthly regular contribution enables you to buy the dips and lower the average price of your holdings. 

Those cheap shares ultimately reward you with tidy profits as prices rebound. 

As the bear v bull market charts above remind us, equities typically bounce back like Rocky shaking off bad-dude haymakers.

That’s the recurring theme of this post amid the talk of savage bears. The market comes back eventually.

Be confident that global capitalism will engineer the recovery. Stick to your plan.

Threshold rebalancing 

Switching to threshold rebalancing [42] instead of annual rebalancing is another sound move when investing in a bear market.

At its simplest, you’ll trade asset classes that have drifted 10-20% off from your pre-set asset allocations. 

It’s a classic ‘sell high, buy low’ technique that requires you to ship out some of your best performers and scoop up armfuls of the stuff nobody wants. 

Emotionally it’s hard to do. You must steel yourself to take action, like a football manager cashing in on an aging club stalwart whose contract is up. 

Threshold rebalancing is more sensitive to market movements, where annual rebalancing may see you miss out on a golden buying opportunity if the bear market is short-lived.

The downside of threshold rebalancing is it requires you to look at your portfolio more often during the bloodbath. That is a bad idea for some [43].

Why investing in a bear market makes sense

The other thing you need do is stay invested. As The Investor counselled in his bear markets strategies [44] piece written during the Global Financial Crisis:

What too many investors do instead, is get out of the market completely after the bear market strikes.

Like this, they crystallise their losses, and risk missing out on the stock market’s recovery.

Don’t beat yourself up if the market continues to fall. 

Going back to the savagery of that 1972-74 UK crash, the market only entered bear territory in August 1973 – some 15 months after the first sign of trouble. 

It was 40% down by the end of Jan 1974. 

Many people would assume that made UK equities a screaming buy. 

But they’d have to endure another 21% dive in March.

Then watch as a further 37% was lopped off from May to September. 

All before a final, jarring, minus-18% elevator-drop floored them in December 1974. 

The real return loss from top to tail was -73%. 

You’d need the forebearance of a saint to take that on the chin. 

But your faith would have been rewarded. As Global Financial Data explains [30]:

The best time to have invested in (UK) stocks over the past 327 years was at the end of 1974 when the index rose 127.68% [99.6% real return] during the next year. This was also the best time to invest for the next ten years (30.64% annual return), 20 years (20.39% annual return) and 30 years (16.11% annual return).

Keep calm and carry on investing

Finally, one last reason to believe that falling stock markets can be a good thing.

One of the best-known market valuation metrics is the Shiller CAPE3 [45]:

Here’s a chart of the relationship based on the US stock market:

This chart shows that low stock market valuations imply strong future returns [46]

Source: Michael Kitces [47], Nerd’s Eye View. 

Bear markets slash stock prices, which lowers the Shiller Cape. That in turn suggests better times lie ahead. 

It’s far from guaranteed but there is a relationship between undervalued markets and future returns.

That is one of the reasons stock prices bounce back so forcefully in many of the charts we’ve seen today. 

Just as overbought, euphoric markets light the fuse on their own destruction, oversold, depressed markets sow the seeds of recovery in the loamy ashes of defeat. 

You don’t need fancy market timing moves in a bear market. What you need is resilience, patience, and belief.

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

  1. What would happen is the price of suddenly-safe equities would be bid up until their expected returns were just a little bit above what you get from cash and bonds. After this one-time gain, equity returns would be mediocre going forward. But luckily for we poor strivers, that’s probably never going to happen. [ [52]]
  2. I used the remarkable Nikkei return calculator [53] from DQYDJ. [ [54]]
  3. Also known as Shiller P/E or the cyclically-adjusted P/E ratio [55]. [ [56]]