Bear markets are a fact of life. That doesn’t make it any easier to anticipate them, predict how long one will last, or estimate the depth of the decline. But you don’t need to be a clairvoyant to take a few prudent steps to minimize your bear-market losses while improving long-term investing returns in the bargain.
What Is a Bear Market?
A bear market is commonly defined as a stock market decline of 20% or more as reflected in a broad index like the Standard & Poor’s 500 or the Nasdaq Composite.
Because stock markets can suffer frequent declines of 5% or more, investors often don’t realize a bear market has set in until their losses go well past that point.
The combination of the losses already suffered, rising uncertainty about the future, and increased market volatility can leave investors wracked with indecision and unable to take corrective action while their portfolio sustains long-term damage.
While every bear market in history was eventually followed by higher prices, plenty of portfolios ruined by bear markets have taken much longer to recover, and some never did. The first order of business in investing is preserving capital, and there’s nothing like a bear market to drive home that point.
Meanwhile, the gains made at high risk during a bear market don’t count double. It’s all well and good to be greedy when others are fearful if you’re Warren Buffett. (In fact, the Oracle of Omaha said that is the only time to be greedy.) Either way, you’re not Warren Buffett, and your retirement savings don’t need a hero during periods of high risk.
What starts out looking like a 10% correction or a mild bear market could prove to be the 78% dot-com bubble implosion of 2000 to 2002, or the 54% slump in the Dow Jones Industrial Average between 2007 and 2009.12
So then what can we do to really cushion our losses, and even make some money in a bear market? Here are four strategies to consider.
If you regularly invest a fixed sum in stocks, whether through a 401(k) or a Roth IRA, you will end up buying more as market prices go down and less as they go up, tilting the odds modestly in your favor.
The benefits of dollar-cost averaging accrue on top of those of making regular contributions to any tax-advantaged savings plan. For 401(k) plans, contributions and employer matches typically account for two-thirds of the annual balance increase while investment gains make up one-third.3 That suggests many 401(k) contributors have the means to rebuild their account balances from bear markets relatively quickly.
Many, of course, doesn’t mean all, and aggregates obscure significant differences based on the size of the 401(k) balance, among other factors. Those with balances of more than $200,000 experienced losses of more than 25% in 2008, while account balances under $10,000 grew 40% as contributions swamped investment losses, according to one study.
No amount of dollar-cost averaging can get around the fact that workers with higher account balances have much more to lose in a bear market, while older plan participants have less time to make up any such losses before retirement. And of course there is a large overlap between these groups.
Considering the balance of risk and reward, an investor approaching retirement should have a much more conservative approach to a bear market than a younger worker with a smaller account balance. Yet often that isn’t the case. As of Q3 2021, Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) were the generation most likely to be invested too aggressively, according to Fidelity Investments’ study of its retirement plan participants. In contrast, 51% of the GenX plan participants, 70% of the Millennials and 85% of GenZ were 100% invested in a target date fund.5
Note too that target date funds also risk big losses in a bear market, losing between 23% and 39% in 2008 depending on the target date.6
Only you can determine what portfolio allocation will let you sleep soundly and safeguard your future considering your age, means, and risk tolerance. The important thing is to figure it out and act accordingly instead of surrendering to inertia.
Diversify Without Disengaging
Bear markets tend to savage growth stocks more so than value ones. By a happy coincidence, lower-risk stocks have generated long-term returns similar to those of riskier ones, despite the lower risk.7 For portfolios tilted towards speculative stocks, that means some diversification into value, even if it is overdue and takes place during a bear market, can pay dividends figuratively as well as literally long after the bear market is history.
Cash has a role in a diversified portfolio. Even if it doesn’t earn much yield, it represents a reserve of buying power that can be quickly marshalled as the bear market presents opportunities.
But if you place a significant proportion of your retirement account into cash during a bear market, you’ll face the unenviable task of having to figure out if, when, or where to redeploy it, or else face diminished long-term returns.
Market timing is hard, and trying it is likely to leave you poorer. Fidelity 401(k) plan participants who changed their equity allocation to zero between October 2008 and March 2009 and then invested in equities again after the downturn gained 25% through June 2011, versus 50% for those who left the allocation alone.8
The 54% rebound in the S&P 500 between early 2009 and fall of 2011 left many plan retirement participants behind. One study focusing on workers ages 51 to 59 found the average account balance increased only 7% over the same span, with 45% of the workers experiencing a decline in retirement savings.
Hedge and Speculate Prudently With Options
Only a small percentage of options traders make money, while the vast majority of the retail investors hankering for the leveraged returns options can provide lose so much money that economists can only assume they’re doing it for gambling and entertainment.10
If you’re not sure whether you belong to the small minority, you probably don’t. And if you did, you wouldn’t be here to learn that some option trades can make the smart or lucky speculator money in a bear market. You’d already know that put options or put spreads, especially those bought after a bear market rally, can be used to hedge long positions or acquired for a speculative trade.
At least if you buy a put, the acquisition cost is the value at risk. Selling a put, especially in a bear market, can prove much costlier. As prices decline, there is a good chance the put will be exercised. And even if you end up acquiring a stock you wish to own at an acceptable price this way, chances are high that further bear-market declines will drive it lower.
The Bottom Line
Bear markets are no reason to panic but a good time to make sure your portfolio is properly diversified and de-risked. Know how much you have at stake and how much time you have to recoup any losses.