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8 Keys To Survival In A Bear Market

A good investor must be able to sense when a bear market is starting and make the required adjustments quickly. What are the keys for bear market survival?

The information in this content is not advice on financial, investment, tax or other matters. You can trust the integrity of our unbiased, independent editorial staff. We may, however, receive compensation from the issuers of some products mentioned in this article. See how we make money.

Table Of Content

What Exactly is a Bear Market?

A bear market occurs when the prices of investment instruments generally decline over an extended period.

The term bear market is most commonly used in stock trading but it can also refer to a negative environment for other securities like bonds or commodities.

The period of time when prices generally decline is referred to as the duration. Most bear market durations lasted more than one year but did not extend to more than two years.  Available historical data reveal that a bear market duration ranged anywhere from a brief three months to a long three-year spell.

As a (smart) investor, how would you know if a bear market has started? If you wait for the news to say it’s been declared a bear, the market may already be down 20%. By this time, it might be a little late.

Investing Strategies in a Bear Market

There are several ways investors can invest profitably in a bear market. Let’s have a look at some of them

  • Dollar-cost averaging: This entails investing a fixed amount of money in the same fund or stock at regular intervals over a long period. The catch is that over time, the investor spends less on average than a lump investment.
  • Diversification: This entails spreading your risk by investing in multiple sectors. Seems different parts of the economy have different business cycles, the gains in one sector can be used to offset losses in another sector. This way, diversification reduces the overall risk to the portfolio and the effect of a loss during a bear market.
  • Dividend-paying stocks. You can also invest in dividend-paying stocks. The extra income that comes from dividend payments can be reinvested. This reduces the degree of losses and increases portfolio size. The compounding effect also sets the pace for long-term profits.

Here are 8 keys to surviving in a bear market.  Some of them will fit your investment style better than the others.

1. Use a Portfolio Hedge

Portfolio hedging is a technique designed to specifically protect you in a bear market situation.

The security hedges will normally move in the opposite direction of major indices.  Portfolio hedges usually include financial derivatives (options and futures), negatively correlated ETFs, index options and short selling.  Some of them may be effective for you or not.  It all depends on your level of skill, knowledge and risk tolerance.

If done properly, hedging will offset some or even all of the losses in your portfolio.

But remember: Inversely, losses can be substantial if the market rallies because your hedges will move further in the opposite direction.  Short selling may expose you to undeterminable risks.

Are Bonds Good in a Bear Market?

Bonds are generally more stable investment. During a bear market, bonds may be an good investment since their values tend to fall less than stock prices. The fundamental explanation for this inverse association is that bonds, particularly US Treasury bonds, are regarded a safe haven, making them more appealing to investors in such times than volatile equities.

In addition, as part of monetary policy that boosts the economy by decreasing interest rates, the Federal Reserve frequently purchases US Treasury bonds to mitigate negative economic impact.

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2. Asset Allocation

Plan how you want to structure your investment portfolio before you actually invest your funds in a bear market. This is a tactical part of your portfolio construction.

Let me explain: As you may know, it is not wise to attempt timing the market by diving in and out stocks, bonds or mutual funds.  A much smarter move would be to make small and deliberate adjustments in the asset allocation of your portfolio.

Asset allocation is the greatest catalyst of your total portfolio performance, especially over extended periods. An investor who is just average in terms of investment selection but good at asset allocation might have good returns. Conversely, an investor with a good investment selection but a poor asset allocation might have worse performance.

For example: Let’s suppose that the indicators of a bear market are beginning to manifest:  high P/E ratios, soaring interests.  By all indications, a new bear market is just around the corner. You can already make a move to reduce your exposure to riskier stock funds and your overall stock portfolio. Begin building your bond fund and money market fund positions.

Let’s assume that your target or normal allocation is 65% stock funds, 30% bond funds, and 5% cash/money market funds. Once you see all the major signs of a bear market becoming present, you may want to adjust your allocation. How?

You can take mitigate risk by reallocating 50% to stocks, 30% to bonds and 20% to cash funds.  The next step would just simply be selecting the mutual fund types that can help reduce your investment risks.

How to Invest 401k in Bear Market?

It is normal to liquidate your holdings and head for the exit door when the market drops. However, this is irrational conduct propelled by fear. A bear market may be the best time to increase your 401(k) contributions.

If you can afford to, contribute a higher proportion of your salary to your 401(k), try to match your employer’s contribution. Since a 401(k) is a guaranteed return on investment, increasing your contributions can help taper the losses incurred during a bear market.

3. Stop Loss Order

To protect your portfolio from further decline, a stop-loss order may be the solution. What exactly is stop-loss order?

It is an order to your broker to sell your stock once it falls to a certain level below the current price.  When the stock price dips to the designated stop price, the broker will automatically execute the order.

You can hang on to your portfolio and just wait until the stocks hit the Stop price levels. You can also raise the Stops as the prices of securities go up.  This way, you may even realize modest gains instead of a loss.

Don’t forget:

The downside is, there is really no assurance that your stocks will be sold at the indicated price.  Once the stock prices hit the stop level, it already becomes a market order.  If it is traded at the market and the price drops below the stop level, you will likely get a lower price. You can use more technical indicators such as support and resistance, trend lines, candlestick chart and volume in order to get the right decisions.

4. Monitor the S&P 500 P/E Ratio 

Technically, the P/E Ratio tells you the amount of money you need to invest for each cent of the income of a particular stock.

As such, it is widely used by traders and investors in stock selection.  Although it may not accurately predict short-term market fluctuations, it can give insights into the value and direction of equity prices. The P/E of the S&P 500 index is like a barometer to determine if stocks are overbought or oversold.

How do we know if the P/E Ratio high?

Historically, the average P/E Ratio for stocks since the 1870’s has been about 15.66. If you take the average price of the big-cap stocks in the index and divide that by the respective mean earnings, you get a corresponding P/E.  This resulting ratio is called “the market’.  If this P/E is significantly higher than 15.66 it would probably go down in the future.  If it is lower than 15.66, you can expect it to rise.

A much simpler way to get the P/E Ratio of the S&P 500 Index is by a Google search or accessing an online quote for any of the best S&P 500 index funds.

5. Defensive Investments

In the bear market that followed after the dot-com bubble, the Information Technology sector absorbed most of the brunt. Why?

Because IT companies were then trading at astronomical values.  Similarly, in the last bear market that followed the financial crisis, it was the turn of the financial sector.  The financial sector was sent reeling on the ropes because of subprime lending.

A few sectors are considered defensives because their businesses are non-cyclical and not easily affected by larger economic cycles.  Examples of this are utilities, healthcare, FMCGs and pharmaceuticals.

Some investors park their money in them with the belief that it will be safe during the fall of a bear market.  There may be some merit in that line of thought.  During the bear market period from March 24, 2000 to October 9, 2002, this safe haven strategy proved its mettle. When the whole market was tanking, consumer staples rallied to 24.23% while healthcare only registered a marginal 6.92% fall.

Unfortunately, it doesn't promise a total escape. During the last bear market from October 9, 2007 to March 9, 2009 there was no escaping the fire.

Not a single type of portfolio was spared.  Although consumer staples fell far less than their counterparts in the financial or industrial sector, the decline was severe. It would have wiped out a considerable portion of your portfolio should you have parked your money there.

In such a case, holding on to cold cash would have been better than putting your money in defensive stocks.  This is why the whole “diversified portfolio” strategy is never ironclad.

It’s your decision.

6. Cash Out Totally Or Partially

You may opt to sell off all or only the most overvalued securities in your portfolio.  This is a very drastic move, one that needs careful analysis and a good strategy. Your momentary exit may spare you from the fear and worry of losing more money.  The market may hit rock bottom without affecting you at all.

But, when do you go back in?

Good timing is everything.  A good rally may be tempting but it may be a wrong time.  Stick to your fundamentals and see why and when you should jump in again.

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7. Go Against The Flow

Securities that went down the most are good buys only if there is a guarantee that they will recover first or quickly enough.  Since there is no sure-fire way to tell, one has to have a strong determination to use this method.

You could probably nab some stocks that are selling for less than half of their previous values.   However, you should be ready to accept the reality that they might still go down after you buy them.

The real discipline is in looking for the stocks that eventually recover well over the long term.

8. Do Nothing At All

This one is simple: Stay put and just wait for the market to recover.  Hopefully,  your investments will still be intact and poised to grow.

A word of caution though:  markets can take years to fully recover.  The waiting game will test your patience so see if you are up to it . Now that the whole bear market scenario has become clearer, what do you need to do?

You are in luck because my strategy works for both bull AND bear markets.  There is no more need to diversify your portfolio or do some advanced number-crunching analysis. A bear market is not to be taken lightly.

On the other hand, an investor equipped with the right strategies does not have to worry about it. Use any or a combination of the first seven strategies to survive a bear market.  Who knows?  You may even profit from it.

What Not To Do in a Bear Market?

There are several things to avoid doing during a bear market, but there is one every investor should avoid – panic selling.  The market is an aggregate of human emotions. As such, it is easy to get caught up with trends without conducting your due diligence. It is not advisable to panic sell during a bear market.

Such knee-jerk reaction only compounds losses.  Experienced investors advice that this is the time to buy stocks are you would get them cheap. Time in the market is more profitable than timing the market.


In a bear market, the overall market may plunge. However, this does not automatically imply that stocks do not go up. Companies that have weak fundamentals would suffer the most severe declines.

Those with strong fundamentals would rally after declining. Also, sectors of the economy may be performing better than others which could see share prices of companies in that sector appreciate in a bear market.

Contrary to popular opinions, bear markets also present opportunities to make a profit. You should consider investing in sectors that tend to do well during market downturns if you want to add restructure your portfolio during a bear market.

Consumer staples and utilities, for example, are more resilient than other sectors during bear markets. Index funds and exchange-traded funds are a good way to be exposed to resilient sectors in a bear market. However, keep in mind that during bear market any investment is risky and the volatility can be high.

A continuous price increase characterizes a bull market. During these periods, investors frequently believe that the rise will continue in the long run. A bear market, on the other hand, is one that is in decline. Here, the market declines by 20% or more from its recent highs. Share prices are constantly declining.

This reinforces panic and fear in the market which leads to more investors to sell their stocks thereby further perpetuating the downward cycle.