The bull and the bear are the iconic Wall Street animal symbols known the world over. The terms "bullish" and "bearish" have become so pervasive in the language used to describe traders, markets and even commentators that it's hard to imagine a financial conversation where they're not used. There's even a famous statue of a bull that's a must-see sight on Wall Street—and better him than his fellow Wall Street animal.
The Bull Animal Reference in Stock Market Jargon
Bulls are known for their bold, decisive and aggressive nature, so it makes sense that a bull market represents a rising, optimistic market, where stocks forge ahead and investors feel optimistic and confident, U.S. Bank says. So if you feel good about your investments, you may be described as "bullish."
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A bull market is one where stocks continue to rise faster than their historical average for a sustained period of time. The average bull market lasts 9.5 years, but it's the average cumulative total return that's truly stunning: Just more than 300%.
Perhaps the most memorable bull run occurred after the end of World War II, but the longest occurred from 2009 to 2019, Citizens Bank says. At that point, the U.S. Housing market collapsed and took down much of the economy with it. It was another reminder that "bulls don't run forever." Then again, bears don't either.
Consider also: The Effects of Recession on the Stock Market
The Bear Animal Reference in Stock Market Jargon
Bears are known for their cautious, methodical behavior. So it makes sense that a bear market is one that's faltering, when traders are keen on selling off their positions and rush to the relative safety of cash and fixed-income securities. So if you're feeling "bearish," you probably lack confidence in the market and are either staying on the sidelines or selling.
Technically, a bear market begins after the market declines by at least 20% from a recent high. At this point, GDP may decrease while unemployment increases. The average bear market lasts 1.6 years, during which time investors experience an average cumulative loss of just under 39%. But bear markets, like the animal they represent, can be unpredictable: They can last anywhere from several weeks to several years.
Economists continue to debate which bear market took the greatest financial toll on Americans: The Great Depression (from 1930 to 1941) or the Great Recession (from late 2007 to June 2009). Though shorter in duration and obviously tagged a "recession" and not a "depression," many analysts make a strong case for the latter.
Consider also: How to Check Stock Prices
Theories Abound About Wall Street Animal Symbols
It's not 100 percent clear when the bull and bear became associated with stock trading, but the Oxford English Dictionary traces the term "bull market" to 1891. "Bear" may date back even earlier—to the days of the South Sea Bubble in the 18th century, when fraudulent traders were described as people who "sold bear skin before they'd caught the bear." It's not a bad description of today's short sellers, who make money betting that the market will stumble.
Although the animals' personalities are most often used to justify which markets they represent, there are plenty of other theories. The Motley Fool says a common myth is that a bull market is one that's rising because a bull tosses its horns upward when attacking. By contrast, a bear swats downward with its paw when approaching prey--hence his moving market term.
One more animal makes a telling appearance in a Wall Street adage. The saying goes, "Bulls make money, bears make money, but pigs get slaughtered." Roughly translated, it means if you're skilled you can make money in any market, but if you get greedy, you'll lose.