“Bull market” or “bear market” are two phrases that are commonly brought up in the financial world.
If these phrases are new to you, don’t be embarrassed. If you’re a recent college graduate, a young working professional, or just new to the topic of personal finance, you’ve likely had very little personal experience with bear markets until now.
While in some ways, that lack of experience with bear markets was a good thing, now is the time to understand the differences between bear markets and bull markets and how they should affect your financial behavior.
Let’s examine the differences between bull and bear markets so you can set yourself up for success in both environments.
What’s with the bull vs. bear imagery?
A bull market describes a stock market that is trending upward. A bear market describes a stock market trending downward.
So where does each trend get its name from?
When it comes to the “bulls versus bears” imagery, it’s all about the direction of attack.
Bulls typically attack by throwing their horns (and enemies) upward. Meanwhile, bears are likely to overwhelm their foes by swinging its claws downward.
You can even take that analogy one step further to understand how you want to act during each type of market.
If you’re experiencing a bull market, then just like you a bull-rider, you want to “ride the market” for as long as possible–taking advantage of the good times of economic growth.
Alternately, if you find yourself in a bear market, you want to keep your food (or finances) at a safe distance–making sure you’ve got your reserves stashed away and little unnecessary, short-term exposure.
Definition of a bull market
A bull market is defined as a market that’s expected to rise. Typically, this term is used when referring to the stock market, but it could be used for any financial market: bonds, real estate, commodities, currencies, etc.
It’s important to recognize that a single day of gains doesn’t constitute a bull market. Just like a single day of losses doesn’t indicate that a bull market is over. The term “bull market” is typically reserved for an extended period of gains that generally continues several months or years during which investors are confident about the immediate future of the economy.
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Definition of a bear market
A bear market is defined by the opposite: a prolonged period of declines within the market where investors find themselves pessimistic about the health of the economy.
Typically, falling 20% from the market’s previous high is recognized as a bear market. While “market corrections” are decreases in the stock market that happen regularly, a bear market generally occurs over the course of two or more months and is associated with a recession.
Differences between bull vs. bear markets
Like we stated at beginning of this post, the biggest difference between bear markets and bull markets comes down to directions.
During a bull market, you will find most trends are rising:
- Higher confidence in the stock market and economy
- Increasing stock market prices
- Increasing GDP (a measure of economic output in a country)
- Growing employment security (unemployment is one of the factors that’s negatively correlated)
By contrast, the bear market is the opposite. During a bear market, you will find the following:
- Lower confidence in the stock market and economy
- Decreasing stock market prices
- Decreasing GDP
- Shrinking employment security (or higher unemployment)
While bull markets and bear markets have their differences, both offer unique opportunities to improve your financial situation is if you understand the right strategies to get ahead.
How long does a bull market last vs a bear market?
It’s difficult to accurately estimate just how long a bull market or bear market will last.
Looking at historical data, bull markets have lasted for an average of 4.5 years. On the other hand, bear markets have lasted for an average of 14 months. However, these averages don’t have any real predictive power.
In spite of the rampant speculation, you can’t predict the timing or duration of a bull or bear market. It’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day fluctuations and fix a guess about what will happen next. Ultimately, because these terms are focused on the longer-term (months or years), you’ll have to wait until you have the hindsight to really know for sure.
Most likely, you have a friend, coworker, or loved one who has expressed one of the following:
- “I should’ve sold everything right before the Great Recession in 2008.”
- “If I had bought tons of stock at the end of 2009 and held it for 10 years, I would’ve made a fortune.”
- “If I had bought crashing stocks during the “pandemic panic” during March 2020, I could’ve earned a 50% return in just a few months!”
As they say, “hindsight is 20/20.” This is why we advocate for time in the market rather than timing the market. It’s impossible to predict with certainty what will happen next. I
Instead of trying to predict the future–something not even the smartest financial advisors can do–a safer long-term investment strategy is to diversify your portfolio, focus on the long-term, and take advantage that the stock market has always grown over the long run.
Bull vs bear markets: should I be investing?
You’ve got a basic understanding of bull markets versus bear markets now. Should you invest during a bull market? Yes. Should you invest during a bear market? Also yes!
Why you should invest during a bull market
You’ve heard the maxim “buy low, sell high,” right?
With that in mind, you may wonder if you should continue investing when stock market prices are at an all-time high and rising. Why not wait until the price drops by 10-20% and then buy the dip, you ask?
Unfortunately, this type of thinking often keeps you from investing at all. The stock market drops. You tell yourself that if it drops just a little more, you’ll invest your money–but instead, the price rises back up to a new high. “Oh well, you’ll get it next time,” you tell yourself.
Don’t miss out on years of growth. “Time in the market” beats “timing the market,” and in 5, 10, or 25 years, you’ll thank yourself for making consistent, frequent investments instead.
Why you should invest during a bear market
At first glance, everything about a bear market sounds disappointing: falling stock prices, rising unemployment, and general distrust of the economy as a whole.
In spite of that, investing during a bear market can provide you with that perfect chance to buy stocks and index funds at a “discount” when compared to their all-time highs.
Don’t waste your energy trying to predict the bottom of the stock market before you buy. You may see the value of your investment deep even further before it eventually rebounds, but remember–you can’t predict the future, and you’re focused in the long-term anyway.
No matter whether you’re investing during a bull market or a bear market, stay focused on the future. It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day fluctuations of the stock market.
It can also be difficult to ignore those ups and downs because there is definitely no shortage of analyses, talk shows, social media content, and stock predictions attempting to sway your opinion. On any given day, you can find some opinion that doom-and-gloom and all-time highs are just around the corner.
How to thrive during a bear market
Like mentioned at the beginning of this article, many younger adults enjoyed a period of relative prosperity and economic growth over the years. Only recently is the generation of 20- and early 30-somethings learning what it’s like to face a bear market.
Here are a few simple tips to help you thrive during a bear market:
- Live frugally. A bear market is a crucial time to cut your expenses. This frees up valuable cash flow and reduces your risk in case you lose your job or find yourself with unexpected expenses later.
- Solidify your income. You could do this by picking up a second job, starting your own business, or upskilling your resume so you’re more difficult to replace at work to better qualified to find something new if needed.
- Don’t panic-sell your investments. It can be hard to watch your portfolio drop from its all-time highs. Just remember, you aren’t truly losing money unless you decide to sell. While it’s frustrating to watch your investment gains falter, remember that your investments will rebound and continue to grow long before you need the money.
- Prepare in advance. The best time to prepare for a bear market is during a bull market. When times are good, that’s the perfect time to start preparing for a rainy day.
How to prepare for the next bear market
It’s never too late–or too early–to start preparing for the next bear market. The steps below will help you improve your financial situation regardless of the economic climate:
- Build your emergency fund. Eventually, you’ll want to set aside enough money to cover three to six months of your living expenses. This money should be easy to access during a time of need but only used for serious unplanned expenses. If saving 3-6 months of expenses sounds intimidating, start by setting aside just $100, $500, or $1,000.
- Pay off your debt. When times are tough, you’ll want to put your money toward basic necessities like housing and groceries–not making payments toward credit card debt, a financed car, or your student loans. Paying off your debt during times of relative financial prosperity will reduce your obligations if you find yourself strapped for cash down the road.
- Diversify your investments. Don’t keep all of your eggs in one basket. Diversifying your stock portfolio across many stocks (which can be easily done with an index fund like VTSAX) will help reduce your risk compared to picking individual stocks for companies that could suffer serious losses or go completely bankrupt during a global financial crisis. You can also diversify your investments by investing in real estate, peer-to-peer lending, or commodities.
The basic differences between bull markets and bear markets are simple:
Bull markets are defined by upward, optimistic trends. Bear markets are defined by downward, skeptical trends.
Of course, knowing the definitions of these market types has little value unless you understand how these financial environments can affect your personal situation and behavior.
Bull markets and bear markets both offer unique challenges and opportunities. It’s important to understand these differences so you can be proactively prepared. Don’t forget to keep a long-term “bird’s eye” perspective.
Regardless of whether you find yourself in a bull market or a bear market, you can find ways to improve your financial situation today!