Living With the Bear Market

We humans are a complex bunch. I have heard that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. With covid, entire countries seem to have gone through their own version of this, which may or may not have included these stages: zero covid, flattening the curve, lockdowns, mass vaccination, and finally living with covid. In the end, it seems, we have to accept and live with whatever pains us.

So are we in a bear market yet? Some would argue not – the S&P 500 is down some 18% from its January peak, and bear markets are defined as falls of 20%. So they are correct, but the NASDAQ has already passed 20%, so it sure does sound a lot like denial, don’t you think? I’m generally an optimist, but I’ve come to appreciate the value of time as I get older, and therefore think we can all save some of this valuable commodity by skipping past anger, bargaining and depression and moving to accept the bear! Grrrr…

Spotted in Marunouchi recently.

So what is it like living with a bear? Well, let’s take a look at some of the qualities of this charming beast: Historically bear markets occur every 3-5 years, and on average they last about a year. The S&P 500 typically falls around 33% during bear markets, although a third of these delightful periods have seen drops of over 40%. Bear markets typically end, and bull markets begin, when investor confidence is at a low point. In terms of character, although they may start with a crash, bear markets tend to be a slow grind down, peppered with the odd burst of optimism. Yes, bear market rallies are very much a thing, usually spurred by some piece of good news. However, the rallies are generally short-lived, and then the grind downwards resumes.

As you have probably already guessed, trading the bear is not as easy as you may think. Sure, we would all like to sell the top and then go to the beach, only to return to buy the beginning of the next bull run, but trying to do that can seriously damage your wealth if the market turns around quicker than expected. This is from a post of mine back in 2017:

In the years 1980 to 2015, the S&P 500 experienced an average intra-year decline of 14.2%. However, the market ended up achieving a positive return in 27 of those 36 years. That’s 75% of the time. You cannot afford to be sitting on the sidelines while this is happening. In fact, the opportunity cost of doing nothing will cost you far more than any of the corrections, bear markets, and flash crashes:

“From 1996 through 2015, the S&P 500 returned an average of 8.2% a year. But if you missed out on the top 10 trading days during those 20 years, your returns dwindled to just 4.5% a year. Can you believe it? Your returns would have been cut almost in half just by missing the 10 best trading days in 20 years! It gets worse! If you missed out on the top 20 trading days, your returns dropped from 8.2% a year to a paltry 2.1%. And if you missed out on the top 30 trading days? Your returns vanished into thin air, falling all the way to zero!” (from Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook by Tony Robbins)

So how do you make the most of the slow grind downwards without trying to be too clever and missing out on the best trading days? First of all you need to stay calm. Bear markets are not the time for panic and dumping investments out of hand. If you are taking the time to read this blog you likely have a long term plan and there’s no need to deviate from that. Know your risk profile, stay diversified, and take this as an opportunity to accumulate assets at lower prices. Dollar cost averaging is your friend in the bear market. Rather than trying to catch the absolute bottom, keep investing little by little at regular intervals and build up your holdings at a nice average cost. Buy quality, buy what you believe in – this is not the time for speculation on penny stocks.

As to how this particular bear will play out, my thoughts, for what they are worth, are as follows:

  • The Ukraine situation is obviously a factor in inflation, but the main driver here is the Federal Reserve and other central banks.
  • Stocks in general, and tech stocks in particular, did well in the low interest rate environment during covid – lots of stimulus!
  • Now inflation is 8.3% and the Fed funds rate is 0.75%, and it’s a similar story elsewhere in developed markets ex-Japan.
  • The Fed has to close that gap – they will keep raising rates until they close it / inflation cools down, or until something breaks…
  • Means pain for stocks while this goes on – we could still go lower and there will be a plenty of volatility. I don’t see capitulation yet.
  • I think it will be later in the second half of the year before things start to look better – there are already signs that inflation is cooling off a little. We either get out of this because inflation eases off, allowing the Fed some breathing space, or something breaks and the Fed starts cutting rates again to head off the crisis.

How about crypto?

Crypto bear markets are a rare beast, in that they are programmed into the code of the leading crypto asset and arrive with the regularity of a Japanese train. If you don’t understand the Bitcoin 4 year halving cycle, you will constantly be bombarded with narratives to explain the pain, from the Mt Gox hack to the Quadriga scandal, to the Luna / UST debacle of late, there will always be a narrative to explain something that is actually pre-programmed. 2014 was a bear market, 2018 was a bear market, and so here we are in 2022. As with stocks, in crypto bear markets you accumulate quality. That means Bitcoin and Ethereum. Keep your hands off those alts unless you are really confident in their long term value proposition. Even then, prepare to be burned as the LUNAtics have been this week. Bad things happen to alts in bear markets… Bitcoin is down some 60% from its high so far this time around. Keep in mind that peak to trough 80% is the norm. BTC fell from $20,00 to around $3,000 in 2018. In the 2021 bull market it reached $69,000. If you have the nerve, now is the time to accumulate, and 2025 is the when the next bull market train comes along. Act accordingly and embrace the bear.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

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