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A Sensible Definition of a “Bear” Market

June 19th, 2011

A bear market is generally defined as a decline in a widely followed stock index, such as the Dow Jones Industrials or the S&P 500 index, over a greater than 2 month period, by 20% or greater from its most recent high price.

This definition, however, ignores the important valuation component, and as such, must be viewed as faulty, simplistic and perhaps even naive.

For example, a share of stock which previously sold at a hundred times free cash flow, meaning its owners can expect to receive no greater than a 1% return on their investment, declining in value so it now sells at 80 times its free cash flow ( or 1.25% yield), would meet the simple, but generally accepted bear market hurdle.

But should this firm now yielding 1.25% (or less, if it doesn’t generate free cash at all), be considered to be in bear market territory merely because its stock now reflects reality rather than a previously exaggerated valuation.

All we need to do is take a look at the late 1990’s, when technology stocks frequently sold at greater than 100 times their revenues, to say nothing about the return investors could expect .

Bringing it down to the individual security level, you might recall JDS Uniphase, which during that time sold at over $1100 a share, split adjusted.  Could one rationally posit when its stock fell to $880, it placed the security in “cheap” territory,” or more realistically, simply less ridiculous? When viewed this way it is obvious one should look toward valuation aside from drop in value. If so, JDSU would not have reached bear market territory until it dropped to below $10 per share, given it produced negligible amounts of free cash flow during 1997-1999.

Common sense would mandate market pundits should consider not only a fall in the price of a security but also whether the prior valuation made sense in the first place. While we all like simplicity, the connotation of a bear market is the value of an asset has dropped to an unfairly low level given undue pessimism. But if the current valuation level were indeed somewhat fair, one should hardly consider the price to be that of a bear market value.

Implicit in my thinking is there is a fair and reasonable judgment as to fair value, and one which I am comfortable offering a solution, which is as follows:

A bear market occurs when the value of a large grouping  of equity securities, believed to be reflective of the general economy both falls in value by 15% and has a free cash flow yield of twice that of the 10 year treasury yield, based on the firms normalized free cash flows.

Using this definition, the last bear market would have been declared on February 6, 2008, not June 27, or almost 5 months sooner than recognized. This could have allowed congress and the treasury to perhaps save many tens of thousands of jobs, and investors and creditors much grief.

The exception to my 2x treasury yield definition would be during periods of hyper inflation, during which time less than a doubling would be necessitated to trigger a bear market; a sliding  scale that would work its way from 2x up until a 10% yield to just 10% greater should the treasury yield approach 15%. Thankfully, in the U.S. at least, such instances are extremely rare, having been there just once.   As seen in the following 130 year chart, the only period when 10 year yields pushed over 5% resulted from the oil embargos impact on the general price level and wages. Thus, a required 10% free cash flow yield would likewise be rare.

While many would suppose the distinction between the suggested and generally accepted definitions are inconsequential, it is not borne in reality.  And for stock market historians, investment strategists, investors, and yes, politicians, the need to know if a bear market exists is important in everything from asset allocation to policy.

So, given my suggested definition, where would the S&P 500 need to fall to enter bear market territory, and how would that differ from the generally accepted definition?

The S&P 500 began its current bull market in March 2009 and reached its most recent closing high on May 2 at 1361.22. A 20% decline would therefore take that index to bear market territory at 1088.97, or a little over 14% from yesterday’s close of 1267.64. Stocks dropping to that level would, in my estimation, be well into, not at the cusp of, a bear market.

Ten year treasuries currently yield 2.93%. The S&P 500 currently has a normalized free cash flow yield of 5.22% ( or a 19.15 multiple), which includes both corporate overspending and misclassification errors, such as taxes, payments to non-controlling interests, payments on guarantees, factoring, underfunding pension, and the like.  If the free cash flow yield on the S&P 500 were to provide a return twice that of treasuries, stocks would need to yield 5.86% or treasury yields would need to fall. Stocks would therefore need to decline another 10.9%, given their current free cash flow yield and the requirement to permeate the 15% barrier. This combination is considerably smaller than today’s thinking would have it, as generally recognized by the simple 20% definition, and is due to the spread between the treasury rate and the free cash flow yield. In other instances, the barrier might be considerably larger or smaller than the naive bear market definition.

Intuitively, I believe most investors would agree another almost 11% fall in the general level of equity prices would constitute a bear market, not 30% greater than that. And in this case, their perception would be correct, as would be borne out from the fundamental underpinning of equity investing-a firm is worth the present value of its free cash flows. In conjunction with a severe drop in stock values, these two metrics form the basis.


Kenneth S. Hackel, CFA


To learn in-depth cash flow analysis and risk (cost of capital), please see Security Valuation and Risk Analysis

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