What Is a Stock Market Crash?

By Michael Flannelly · March 08, 2024 · 9 minute read

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What Is a Stock Market Crash?

The specter of a stock market crash weighs on the mind of many investors. After all, stock market crashes have played a substantial role in the United States during the 20th and 21st centuries. But knowing what is a stock market crash as well as the history and effects of stock market crashes can help investors weather the storm when the next one occurs.

What Happens When the Stock Market Crashes?

A stock market crash occurs when broad-based stock indices like the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, or the Nasdaq Composite experience double-digit declines over a single or several days. This means that the stocks of a wide range of companies sell off rapidly, generally because of investor panic and macroeconomic factors rather than company-specific fundamentals.

While no specific percentage decline defines a stock market crash, investors generally know one is occurring while it’s happening.

💡 Quick Tip: Before opening any investment account, consider what level of risk you are comfortable with. If you’re not sure, start with more conservative investments, and then adjust your portfolio as you learn more.

What Causes the Market to Crash?

Stock market crashes are usually unexpected and occur without warning. Often, crashes are caused by investor dynamics; when stocks start to sell off, investors’ fear takes over and causes them to panic sell shares en masse.

Though stock market crashes are usually unexpected, there are often signs that one could be on the horizon because a stock market bubble is inflating. A bubble occurs when stock prices rise quickly during a bull market, outpacing the value of the underlying companies. The bubble forms as investors buy certain stocks, driving prices up. Other investors may see the stocks doing well and jump on board, further raising prices and initiating a self-sustaining growth cycle.

The stock price growth continues until some unexpected event makes investors wary of stocks. This unexpected event causes investors to unload shares as quickly as possible, with the herd mentality of panic selling resulting in a stock market crash.

Catastrophic events such as economic crises, natural disasters, pandemics, and wars can also trigger stock market crashes. During these events, investors sell off risky assets like stocks for relatively safe investments like bonds.

Stock markets can also experience flash crashes, where the stock market plummets and rebounds within minutes. Computer trading algorithms can make these crashes worse by automatically reacting and selling stocks to head off losses. For example, on May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1,000 points in 10 minutes but recovered 70% of its losses by the end of the day.

Recommended: What Is the Average Stock Market Return?

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Examples of Past Stock Market Crashes

There have been several crashes in the stock market history, the most recent being the crash associated with the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. The following are some of the most well-known crashes during the past 100 years.

Stock Market Crash of 1929

The most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States occurred in October 1929. The crash occurred following a period of relative prosperity during the Roaring Twenties, when new investors poured money into the stock market.

The crash began on Thursday, October 24, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined about 11%, followed by a 13% decline on Monday, October 28, and a 12% drop on Tuesday, October 29. These losses started a downward trend that would continue until 1932, ushering in the Great Depression.

Black Monday Crash of 1987

On Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted nearly 23% in a single day. Known as Black Monday, this selloff occurred for various reasons, including the rise of computerized trading that made it easier for panicked investors to offload stocks quickly, and stock markets around the world crashed.

Dotcom Crash of 2000

The Dotcom crash between 2000 and 2002 occurred as investors started to pull money away from internet-based companies. The Nasdaq Composite index declined about 77% from March 2000 to October 2002.

In the mid to late 1990s, the internet was widely available to consumers worldwide. Investors turned their eyes to internet-based companies, leading to rampant speculation as they snapped up stocks of newly public internet companies. Eventually, startups that enthusiastic investors had fueled began to run out of money as they failed to turn a profit. The bubble eventually burst.

Recommended: Lessons From the Dotcom Bubble

Financial Crisis of 2008

The stock market crash of 2008 was fueled by rising housing prices, which came on the heels of the dot-com crash recovery. At the time, banks were issuing more and more subprime mortgages, which financial institutions would bundle and sell as mortgage-backed securities.

As the Federal Reserve increased interest rates, homeowners, who often had been given mortgages they couldn’t afford, began to default on their loans. The defaults had a ripple effect throughout the economy. The value of mortgage-backed securities plummeted, causing major financial institutions to fail or approach the brink of failure. This financial crisis spilled over into the stock market, and the S&P 500 fell nearly 60% from a peak in October 2007 to a low in March 2009.

Coronavirus Crash of 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic swept the United States in February 2020, the government responded with stay-at-home orders that shut down businesses and curtailed travel. The U.S. economy entered a recession, and the stock market plunged. The S&P 500 fell 30% into bear market territory in just one month, including a one day decline of 12% on March 16, 2020.

What Are the Effects of a Crash?

Stock market crashes can lead to bear markets, when the market falls by 20% or more from a previous peak. If the crash leads to an extended period of economic decline, the economy may enter a recession.

A market crash could lead to a recession because companies rely heavily on stocks as a way to grow. Falling stock prices curtail a company’s ability to grow, which can have all sorts of ramifications. Companies that aren’t able to earn as much as they need may lay off workers. Workers without jobs aren’t able to spend as much. As consumers start spending less, corporate profits begin to shrink. This pattern can lead to a cycle of overall economic contraction.

A recession is usually declared when U.S. gross domestic product, or GDP, shrinks for two consecutive quarters. There may be other criteria for declaring a recession, such as a decline in economic activity reflected in real incomes, employment, production, and sales.

đź’ˇ Quick Tip: How to manage potential risk factors in a self-directed investment account? Doing your research and employing strategies like dollar-cost averaging and diversification may help mitigate financial risk when trading stocks.

Preventing Stock Market Crashes

Major stock exchanges like the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) have instituted circuit breaker measures to protect against crashes. These measures halt trading after markets drop a certain percentage to curb panic selling and prevent the markets from going into a freefall.

The NYSE’s circuit breakers kick in when three different thresholds are met. A drop of 7% or 13% in the S&P 500 shuts down trading for 15 minutes when the drop occurs between 9 am and 3:25 pm. A market decline of 20% during the day will shut down trading for the rest of the day.

Suppose a crash does occur, and it threatens to weaken the economy. In that case, the federal government may step in to ease the situation through monetary and fiscal policy stimulus measures. Monetary policy stimulus is a set of tools the Federal Reserve can use to stimulate economic growth, such as lowering interest rates. Fiscal stimulus is generally infusions of cash through direct spending or tax policy.

Investment Tips During a Market Crash

A stock market crash can be alarming, especially when it comes to an investor’s portfolio. Here are some investment tips to consider for navigating a market downturn.

Don’t Panic and Focus on the Long-Term

It will help if you remain calm when the stock market is plummeting. That’s often easier said than done, especially when your portfolio’s value declines by more than 10% in a short period. It’s tempting to join the panic selling, to make sure stock losses are minimized.

But remember, investing is a long game. In general, making decisions based on something happening now when your investing time horizon might be 30 years, may not be the best choice. If you don’t need access to your money right away, it may be better to hold on to your investments and give them time to recover.

Diversify Your Portfolio

Stocks and the stock market get most of the media’s attention, especially when the stock market is crashing, but there are other potential ways to help you realize your financial goals. Other assets like bonds, commodities, or emerging market stocks may be attractive investment opportunities to consider during a crash.

Consider Buying The Dip

While it depends on an individual’s specific situation and risk tolerance, a stock market crash might present opportunities to purchase stocks at a lower, more attractive share price that some investors may want to consider.

The Takeaway

The stock market tends to recover following a stock market crash; it took the S&P 500 six months to recover the losses experienced during the coronavirus crash. So any rash moves investors make during a stock market crash may prevent them from seeing gains in the long term.

A stock market crash can be scary, causing you to panic and fret over your savings and investments. But often, with investing, the best advice is not to make rash decisions. Even during a stock market crash, there may still be some opportunities and strategies to help build wealth over time.

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When was the last market crash?

The last stock market crash was in 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when business shut down and the stock market plunged. The S&P 500 fell 30% in just one month. Within six months, however, the S&P 500 had recovered its losses.

What goes up when the stock market crashes?

Bonds generally tend to go up when the stock market crashes, although not always. Government bonds such as U.S. Treasuries typically do best during a market crash, though again, there are no guarantees.

Do stocks recover after a crash?

Historically, the stock market has recovered after a crash, although it’s impossible to say how long a recovery might take. Some stock market recoveries have taken a year or less, some have taken much longer.

Photo credit: iStock/Prostock-Studio

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Investment Risk: Diversification can help reduce some investment risk. It cannot guarantee profit, or fully protect in a down market.


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