The S&P 500 closed in a 'bear market' on Monday. What does that mean?

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on June 10, 2022 in New York City.

Spencer Platt | Getty Images

There isn’t anything particularly special about the 20% demarcation line used to define a bear market. It’s more a symbolic psychological hurdle for investors. It often portends — but doesn’t cause — a recession.

“It’s a shortcut in language around the financial markets that people use,” Charlie Fitzgerald III, an Orlando, Florida-based certified financial planner, said of bear markets. “The bottom line is, it’s a tough time.”

By comparison, a “bull market” is a period when stocks are surging, which has largely been the case since the Great Recession.

Human emotions are just a difficult thing to predict.

Charlie Fitzgerald III

Orlando, Florida-based certified financial planner

Bear markets are a periodic feature of the stock market. Since World War II, there have been nine declines of 20% to 40% in the S&P 500, and three others of more than 40%, according to Guggenheim Investments. (The analysis doesn’t include 2022.)

On average, stocks took 14 months and 58 months to recover, respectively, after those declines. The S&P 500 slid 34% from Feb. 19 to March 23 in 2020; stocks recovered by mid-August and ultimately swelled 114% through Jan. 3, 2022, the recent record, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

It’s impossible to say how long the current downturn will last, Fitzgerald said. “Human emotions are just a difficult thing to predict,” he said.