Bull vs Bear Market: What's the Difference?

By Michael Flannelly · June 02, 2024 · 8 minute read

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Bull vs Bear Market: What's the Difference?

In the financial world, you’ll often hear the terms “bull market” and “bear market” in reference to market conditions, and these terms refer to extended periods of ups and downs in the financial markets. Because market conditions directly affect investors’ portfolios, it’s important to understand their differences.

As such, knowing the basics of bull and bear markets, and potentially maintaining or adjusting your investment strategy accordingly, may help you make wiser investing decisions, or at least provide some mental clarity.

What Is a Bull Market?

A bull market is a period of time in the financial markets where asset prices are rising, and optimism is high. A bull market is seen as a good thing for most investors because stock prices are on the upswing and the economy is booming. In other words, the market is charging ahead, and portfolios are rising in value. The designation is a bit vague, as there’s no specific amount of time or level of increase that defines a bull market.

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The term “bull market” has an interesting history, and was actually coined in response to the development of the term “bear market” (more on that in a minute). The short of it is that “bears” became associated with speculation. In the 1700s, “bull” was used to describe someone making a speculative investment hoping that prices would rise, and thus, itself became the mascot for upward-trending markets.

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What Is a Bear Market?

Investors and market watchers generally define a bear market as a drop of 20% or more from market highs. When investors refer to a bear market, it usually means that multiple broad market indexes, such as the Standard & Poors 500 Index (S&P 500) or Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), fell by 20% or more over at least two months.

As noted, the term “bear” has a long history. It can be traced back to an old proverb, warning that it isn’t wise to “sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear.” “Bear’s skin” became simply “bear” over the years, and the term started to be used to describe speculators in the markets. Those speculators were often betting or hoping that prices would decline so that they could generate returns, and from there, “bears” became associated with downward-trending markets.

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Bull vs Bear: Main Differences

The most stark and obvious difference between bull and bear markets is that one is associated with a downward-trending market, and the other, with an upward-trending market. But there are other differences as well.

For instance, bull markets tend to last longer than bear markets – although there’s no guarantee that any bull market will last longer than any particular bear market. The average bull market, for instance, lasts between six and seven years, while the average bear market lasts less than one-and-a-half years.

Typical gains and losses are lopsided between the two, as well. The average gain over the course of a bull market is almost 340%, while the average cumulative loss during bear markets is less than 40%.

Bull vs Bear Market: Key Differences

Bull Market

Bear Market

Upward-trending market Downward, or declining market
Have an average duration of 6.6 years Have an average duration of 1.3 years
Average cumulative gains amount to ~340% Average cumulative losses amount to 38%

How Is Investing Different During a Bull Market vs a Bear Market?

Depending on the individual investor, investing can be different during different types of markets. For some people, their investing habits may not change at all – but for others, their entire strategy may shift. A lot of it has to do with your personal risk tolerance and whether you’re letting your emotions get the best of you.

You may want to think of it this way: Just like encountering a grizzly on a hike, a bear market can be terrifying. Falling stock prices likely mean that the value of your retirement account or other investment portfolios are plummeting.

Unrealized losses during a bear market can be psychologically brutal, and if your investments don’t have time to recover, they can seriously affect your life.

Assuming, that is, that those unrealized losses become realized – if an investor does nothing during a bear market, allowing the market to recover (which, historically, it always has), then they’ve effectively lost nothing.

That can be important to keep in mind because markets are cyclical, meaning that bear markets are a fact of life; they tend to occur every three to four years. But what makes them nerve-wracking is that it’s difficult to see them coming. Some signs that a bear market may be looming include a slowing economy, increasing unemployment, declining profits for corporations, and decreasing consumer confidence, among other things.

Conversely, many investors may find it psychologically easier to invest during a bull market, when assets are appreciating (generally), and they can see an immediate unrealized return in their portfolio. Again, each investor will react differently to different market conditions, but the psychological weight of prevailing markets can be heavy on many investors.

Investing During a Bull Market

As noted, investors choose to adopt different investment strategies depending on whether we’re experiencing a bull or bear market.

During a bull market, some might suggest holding off on the urge to sell stocks even after you’ve had gains, since you could miss out on even higher prices if the bull market charges forward. However, no one knows when a peak will arrive, so this buy-and-hold strategy could lead to investors, who sell later, missing out on potential gains.

It may be a good idea to try and keep your confidence in check during a bull market, too. Because investors have seen their holdings gaining value, they might think they’re better at picking stocks than they actually are, and could feel tempted to make riskier moves.

Another common mistake is believing that the gains will continue in perpetuity; in reality, it’s often hard to predict a downswing, and stock market timing is challenging for even professional investors.

Investing During a Bear Market

A great way to prepare for a bear market is to try and remember that the market will, at some point, see a downturn. And, accordingly, to try and be prepared for it.

One way to do so could be to make sure your assets aren’t allocated in a way that’s riskier than you’re comfortable with — for example, by being overly invested in stocks in one company, industry, or region — when times are good. In other words, make sure your portfolio contains some degree of diversification.

Buying stock during a bear market can be advantageous since investors might be getting a better deal on stocks that could rise in value once the market recovers, which is also known as buying the dip. However, there can be obvious risks associated with predicting when certain stocks will hit bottom and buying them with the expectation of future gains.

No one knows what the future holds, so there’s always a chance the price will keep plummeting. Another tactic investors might be able to use is dollar-cost averaging — which is investing a fixed amount of money over time — so that chances of buying at high or low points are spread out over time.

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Once the bear market arrives, investors make a common mistake: getting spooked and selling off all their stocks. But selling when prices are low means they could be likely to suffer losses and may miss the subsequent rebound.

In general, as long as investors are comfortable with their portfolio mix and are investing for the long haul, it may be a good idea to stick with your predetermined strategy, no matter what’s happening in the markets in the short-term. Again, it’s worth remembering that market cycles are normal, and the same dynamism responsible for downturns allows investors to experience gains at other times.

Examples of Bull and Bear Markets

As discussed, bear markets are fairly common. In fact, dating back to 1929, the S&P 500 has experienced a decline of 20% or more 27 times – and the good news for investors, as of late, is that more recent bear markets have tended to be shorter in duration, and fewer and further between.

The most recent bear market was during 2022, and lasted 282 days, with a market decline of more than 25%. The market has, since then, bounced back to reach record-highs. Before that, there was a bear market in February and March 2020, when the pandemic initially hit the U.S., which saw the markets fall more than 33% – but the bear market itself lasted only 33 days.

Going back even further, there was a relatively severe bear market in the early 1970s which lasted 630 days, and saw the market decline 48%. Again, that makes more recent downturns look fairly tame in comparison.

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The Takeaway

Bull and bear markets refer to either rising or declining markets, with bear markets notable as they represent declines of at least 20% in the market. Both bull and bear markets can have psychological effects on investors, and it’s important to understand what they are to try and adjust (or stick to) your strategy, accordingly.

If you’re investing for decades down the road, once you have an investment mix that is diversified and matches your comfort with risk, it’s often wisest to leave it alone regardless of what the market is doing. It may also be a good idea to speak with a financial professional for guidance.

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