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U.S. stocks’ slide confirms bear market

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With a 3.9% drop on Monday, the benchmark S&P 500 index ended 21.8% below its Jan. 3 record closing high

The U.S. stock market’s brutal year reached a grim milestone as the S&P 500’s slide on Monday confirmed a bear market for the first time since March 2020, fuelled by worries over sky-high inflation, a hawkish Federal Reserve and future economic growth.

With a 3.9% drop on Monday, the benchmark S&P 500 index ended 21.8% below its Jan. 3 record closing high. By falling at least 20% from its peak, the index confirmed a bear market, under a common definition used by market watchers.

If history is any guide, a bear market would mean more pain could be in store for investors. The S&P 500 has fallen by an average of 32.7% in 13 bear markets since 1946, including a nearly 57% drop during the 2007-2009 bear market during the financial crisis, according to Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA.

It has taken a little over a year on average for the index to reach its bottom during bear markets, and then roughly another two years to return to its prior high, according to CFRA. Of the 13 bear markets since 1946, the return to breakeven levels has varied, taking as little as three months to as long as 69 months.

The S&P 500 surged some 114% from its March 2020 low as stocks benefited from emergency policies put in place to help stabilize the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those gains went into reverse at the start of 2022 as the Fed grew far more hawkish and signalled it would tighten monetary policy at a faster-than-expected clip to fight surging inflation. It has already raised rates by 75 basis points this year and expectations of more hikes ahead, including at this week’s Fed meeting, have weighed on stocks and bonds.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has vowed to raise rates as high as needed to kill inflation but also believes policymakers can guide the economy to a so-called soft landing. Adding to the volatility this year has been the war in Ukraine, which has caused a further spike in oil and other commodity prices.

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