S&P 500 Falls Into Bear Market Territory

The index was last trading down more than 20% from its highs, the dividing line between a bull and a bear market.

Senior ETF Analyst
Reviewed by: Sumit Roy
Edited by: Sumit Roy

Financial markets were in for another rough day on Thursday after policymakers failed to inspire confidence in investors. The U.S. announced a 30-day travel ban for Europe, while the European Central Bank announced 120 billion euros of additional quantitative easing for the year and looser capital requirements for banks.

The S&P 500 plunged more than 7% in early trading, triggering a Level 1 circuit breaker for a second time this week. Markets were temporarily halted for 15 minutes shortly after the open. The index finished the session down by 9.5%, its worst single-session decline since 1987 and its fifth-largest decline ever. 

Thursday's rout pushed the S&P 500 from 19% below its all-time high to nearly 27% below. The 20% level marks the dividing line between a bull and a bear market, according to many on Wall Street. 

S&P 500 Enters Bear Territory

What A Bear Market Means

While a handy heuristic, the 20% threshold doesn’t necessarily tell investors any important information about what to do and where stocks are headed from here.

The cutoff for bull market versus bear market is rather arbitrary. It just as well could have been 30% or even 40%.

Nor does crossing the threshold suggest anything about the future. It doesn’t indicate how large or how long the ultimate sell-off will be. Nevertheless, if the S&P 500 finishes the day down by more than 20%, it’s something that hasn’t happened since the financial crisis.

There have been close calls. Most recently, in December 2018, the index shed 19.8% on a closing basis before zooming back to all-time highs over the next several months.

In October 2011, during the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, the index fell as much as 19.4%; and in October 1990, in the midst of a modest recession, the S&P 500 bottomed out with a 19.9% loss.

Spooky History

It’s true that in recent history, declines in the S&P 500 that exceeded 20% on a closing basis tended to get dramatically worse. For example, we saw that during the financial crisis and after the bursting of the dot-com bubble, but that doesn’t mean it will continue to be the case.

The two most recent 20%-plus declines certainly paint a grim picture for future returns.

On July 9, 2008, the S&P 500 closed more than 20% from its all-time high as bad news during the financial crisis piled up. The index would go on to extend those declines to 56.8% over the next eight months.

Similarly, the index crossed that line in the sand on March 12, 2001, and the decline continued for another 19 months, reaching 50.8% at its nadir.

However, earlier declines suggest a more in-between scenario is possible. For example, on Feb. 22, 1982, the S&P 500 entered bear market territory. After that, losses only expanded to 27.1% over the next six months.

Then there is the August 1966 example. The S&P 500 only fell another 2% over the next month after falling into bear market territory. 

Little Solace

None of these historical examples will be much solace to investors in the short term. The magnitude and speed of the current decline is extremely unusual. And where and when markets bottom out is anyone’s guess.

The economic fallout of the coronavirus on the U.S. has yet to show up in the data. On Wednesday, the government revealed that initial jobless claims fell by 4,000, remaining near recent lows. The number of claims will surely rise as large parts of the economy shut down.

Yet, investors have little idea how bad the damage will be, leaving them guessing and panicking.

Email Sumit Roy at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @sumitroy2


Sumit Roy is the senior ETF analyst for etf.com, where he has worked for 13 years. He creates a variety of content for the platform, including news articles, analysis pieces, videos and podcasts.

Before joining etf.com, Sumit was the managing editor and commodities analyst for Hard Assets Investor. In those roles, he was responsible for most of the operations of HAI, a website dedicated to education about commodities investing.

Though he still closely follows the commodities beat, Sumit covers a much broader assortment of topics for etf.com, with a particular focus on stock and bond exchange-traded funds.

He is the host of etf.com’s Talk ETFs, a popular video series that features weekly interviews with thought leaders in the ETF industry. Sumit is also co-host of Exchange Traded Fridays, etf.com’s weekly podcast series.

He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he enjoys climbing the city’s steep hills, playing chess and snowboarding in Lake Tahoe.