Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What Is A Bear Market?

To many, especially those in the financial media, a bear market is a statistic. For example, during Monday's swoon, the words "The market, down 20%, is now in bear market territory" could be heard early and often. However, to investment strategists and seasoned portfolio managers, a bear market is not a statistic but a trend established or in the process of being established in which lower prices are the dominant trend. How one comes to this conclusion is a process of the methodology employed. And only time will tell if the forecast is correct.

At present, the view here is that the bear is the operative major trend. This is so for reasons described on many previous occasions, most notably the Mega Trend*. If I (and others) are correct and we are in the throes of the bear, then there are three portfolio decisions that need to be made.

First, what is the appropriate asset allocation mix? The answer depends on one's risk tolerance, goals, objectives, constraints, etc.

Second, what is the appropriate sector mix? The answer here depends partly on the answer to first question but also includes a standard reduced volatility exposure (lower beta) via "defensive" sectors. Thus far, in this bear that has produced some good alpha.

Third, what is the most productive tactical approach to take? Here, the answer resides in what phase of the bear we are in. If in the first wave (which is what I believe we are still in), fade (sell) the rallies is the appropriate course of action. Rallies are a feature of the first phase, as the bulls still have considerable residual strength and the supporting argument that we are only in a correction. This is not the case in the second and third phase, when rallies are few and far between.**

There is a related topic to discuss re the bear: "Because."

Like all market factors, the reasons for the bear (or the bull, for that matter) are many and complex. The simple "Because" reasons given so blithely so often in the financial media are the construct of the business dynamics of the financial media industry and human nature. For many, it is hard to believe that cause and effect (the real world reasons for why markets move) is not always the case. The problem with this is simple: the cause is rarely one thing. It is predominantly many issues with many complex dynamics at work.

One last point: the magnitude of a move is very difficult to forecast. Assumptions can (and should) be made. However, given the highly dynamic nature of the markets (see Soros' "Reflexivity" on this*), it is hard enough getting the direction correct let alone how large the move will be and when it will end.

Bottom Line: A bear market is not just a statistic. It is the view (followed by the reality) that a downward trend is in effect that results in significant loss in value or time. It's a bear until it ain't. Or, to quote the famed philosopher, Yogi Berra, "It ain't over 'til it's over."

*Use search function to find prior posts on this and other topics.
**When entering the 2nd and 3rd phase, the asset allocation should be at the desired level.

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