Almost every day in the investing world, you will hear the terms ‘bull’ and ‘bear’ to describe market conditions. As common as these terms are, defining and understanding what they mean is not so easy. The direction of the market is a major force affecting your portfolio, it’s important you know exactly what the terms bull and bear market actually signify, how they are characterized and how it affects you.
What are bear and bull markets?
Used to describe how stock markets are doing in general - that is, whether they are appreciating or depreciating in value - these two terms are constantly buzzing around the investing world. At the same time, because the market is determined by the investors’ attitudes, these terms also denote how investors feel about the market and the ensuing trend.
Simply put, a bull market refers to a market that is on the rise. It is typified by a sustained increase in market share prices. In such times, investors have faith that the uptrend will continue in the long term. Typically, the country’s economy is strong and employment levels are high.
On the other hand, a bear market is one that is in decline. Share prices are continuously dropping, resulting in a downward trend that investors believe will continue in the long run, which, in turn, perpetuates the spiral. During a bear market, the economy will typically slow down.
Where did the terms come from?
The actual origins of these expressions are unclear. Here are two of the most frequent explanations given:
1. The terms ‘bear’ and ‘bull’ are thought to derive from the way in which each animal attacks its opponents. That is, a bull will thrust its horns up into the air, while a bear will swipe down. These actions were then related metaphorically to the movement of a market: if the trend was up, it was considered a bull market; if the trend was down, it was a bear market.
2. Historically, the middlemen in the sale of bearskins would sell skins they had yet to receive. As such, they would speculate on the future purchase price of these skins from the trappers, hoping they would drop. The trappers would profit from a spread - the difference between the cost price and the selling price. These middlemen became known as ‘bears’, short for bearskin jobbers, and the term stuck for describing a downturn in the market. Conversely, because bears and bulls were widely considered to be opposites due to the once-popular blood sport of bull-and-bear fights, the term bull stands as the opposite of bears.
Characteristics of a bull and bear market
Although we know that a bull or bear market condition is marked by the direction of stock prices, there are some accompanying characteristics of the bull and bear markets that investors should be aware of. The following list describes some of the factors that generally are affected by the current market type, but do keep in mind that these are not steadfast or absolute rules for typifying either bull or bear markets:
Supply and demand for securities - In a bull market, we see strong demand and weak supply for securities. In other words, many investors wish to buy securities while few are willing to sell. As a result, share prices will rise as investors compete to obtain available equity. In a bear market, the opposite is true as more people are looking to sell than buy. The demand is significantly lower than supply and, as a result, share prices drop.
Investor psychology - Because the market’s behaviour is influenced and determined by how individuals perceive that behaviour, investor psychology and sentiment are fundamental to whether the market will rise or fall. Stock market performance and investor psychology are mutually dependent. In a bull market everyone is interested in the market and is willing to participate in the hope of obtaining a profit. During a bear market, on the other hand, market sentiment is negative as investors are beginning to move their money out of equities and into fixed-income securities until there is a positive move. In sum, the decline in stock market prices shakes investor confidence, which causes investors to keep their money out of the market - which, in turn, causes the decline in the stock market. When speaking of investor psychology we cannot avoid the impact of herd instinct. Herd instinct explains why people tend to imitate others. When a market is moving up or down, investors are subject to a fear that others know more or have more information. As a consequence, investors feel a strong impulse to do what others are doing.
Change in economic activity - Because the businesses whose stocks are trading on the exchanges are the participants of the greater economy, the stock market and the economy are strongly connected. A bear market is associated with a weak economy as most businesses are unable to record huge profits because consumers are not spending nearly enough. This decline in profits, of course, directly affects the way the market values stocks. Market value is also commonly used to refer to the market capitalization of a publicly-traded company and is obtained by multiplying the number of its outstanding shares by the current share price. In a bull market, the reverse occurs as people have more money to spend and are willing to spend it, which, in turn, drives and strengthens the economy.
How to gauge market changes
The key determinant of whether the market is bull or bear is the long-term trend, not just the market’s knee-jerk reaction to a particular event. Small movements only represent a short-term trend or a market correction. Of course, the length of the time period that you are viewing will determine whether you see a bull or bear market.
For example, imagine the last two weeks showed the market to be bullish while the last two years may have displayed a bearish tendency. Thus, most agree that a decided reversal in the market should be ascertained by the degree of the change: if multiple indexes have changed by at least 15-20 percent, investors can be quite certain the market has taken a different direction. If the new trend does continue, it is because the investors perceive a change in both market and economic conditions and are thus making decisions accordingly.
Not all long movements in the market can be characterized as bull or bear. Sometimes a market may go through a period of stagnation as it tries to find direction. In this case, a series of up and downward movements would actually cancel-out gains and losses resulting in a flat market trend.
What to do?
In a bull market, the ideal thing for an investor to do is taking advantage of rising prices by buying early in the trend and then selling them when they have reached their peak. Of course, determining exactly when the bottom and the peak will occur is impossible. On the whole, when investors have a tendency to believe that the market will rise (thus being bullish), they are more likely to make profits in a bull market. As prices are on the rise, any losses should be minor and temporary. During the bull market, an investor can actively and confidently invest in more equity with a higher probability of making a return.
In a bear market, however, the chance of losses is greater because prices are continually losing value and the end is not often in sight. Even if you do decide to invest with the hope of an upturn, you are likely to take a loss before any turnaround occurs. Thus, most of the profitability will be found in short selling or safer investments such as fixed-income securities. An investor may also turn to defensive stocks, whose performances are only minimally affected by changing trends in the market and are therefore stable in both economic gloom and boom.
There is no sure way to predict market trends, so investors should invest their money based on the quality of the investments. At the same time, however, you should have an understanding of long-term market trends from a historical perspective. Because both bear and bull markets will have a large influence over your investments, do take the time to determine what the market is doing when you are making an investment decision. Remember though, in the long term, the market has posted a positive return.