Recession Watch: Trading in bear markets

Forex 10 minutes to read

John Hardy

Head of FX Strategy, Saxo Bank Group

Summary:  Bear markets are volatile, unpredictable, and difficult to trade. It is crucial to have an informed strategy when conditions are risk-off for a prolonged period.


Underlying market conditions require a trader’s approach to the market to change when conditions shift. First, market dynamics are always evolving and the cycles are always changing. The bull market of the late 1990s, with its very high volatility as increasingly frenetic tech stocks reached their peak in 2000, bears no resemblance to the post-tech stock crash bull market of 2002-2007 and its ever-tapering volatility.

The bull market that came in the wake of global financial crisis bore many resemblances to the prior bull market, and now that we are more than a decade removed from the last true bear market, many traders have never experienced sustained bear market conditions. That lack of experience is a a potential danger.

Since the volatile tech bubble back in 2000 and the short – and very deep – financial crisis era aside, conditions have encouraged passive exposure to risky assets as it became overwhelmingly evident in recent years that most mutual funds and even hedge funds are hard put to outperform index benchmarks. Trying to time the market has also been futile for many momentum traders, as most panics nearly always reverse in short order.

There were sustained exceptions, of course, as most of 2015 was bad for global markets – and downright awful for emerging markets weighed down by a strong USD. But 2018 was nearly a perfect storm, an historically bad year for returns across all asset classes as there was virtually nowhere to run and hide. And in December of 2018, it almost looked as though something broke, and we saw the worst December for the US equity market since the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

In early 2019, it appeared that the market’s animal spirits had been heavily revived by a sudden about-face from Jerome Powell's Federal Reserve - from hawkishness at the December 20 Federal Open Market Committee meeting to clear dovish signals in January of 2019. But a new bear market may almost certainly be upon us if a recession is on its way.

If that’s the case, what can traders do to prepare?

Things to keep in mind when trading in bear market conditions

If we are set for a sustained bear market in risk appetite, traders may want to keep the following in mind to maximize peace of mind and minimise risk while still look to reap trading gains in the oft-frenzied trading environments that are the signature of bear markets.  

Keep exposures appropriate to volatility – in both directions: In bear markets, recognise that trading ranges can expand to multiples of the average recent volatility. Appropriately-scaled positions will allow traders to stay in the market sufficiently long to be proven right or wrong. As well, the large trading ranges of volatile markets are driven by poor liquidity and the expansion in trading ranges is not only to the downside, but to the upside as well. So one can be bearish in the context of a bear market, but get squeezed out during these vicious upside rallies.

Does anyone much recall or discuss the steep, 27% rise in the US S&P 500 from late November 2008 to early January 2009? The following chart shows that the markets’ best trading days over the last 40+ years have come in association either with bear markets or during a steep correction.

Largest single-day S&P 500 rallies (1987-present, in percentage rise)
 Rank
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
Change
11.58%
10.79%
9.10%
7.08%
6.92%
6.47%
6.37%
6.32%
5.73%
5.42%
5.41%
5.33%
5.14%
5.12%
5.09%
5.01%
4.96%
4.93%
4.77%
4.76%
Date
10/13/2008
10/28/2008
10/21/1987
3/23/2009
11/13/2008
11/24/2008
3/10/2009
11/21/2008
7/24/2002
9/30/2008
7/29/2002
10/20/1987
12/16/2008
10/28/1997
9/8/1998
1/3/2001
12/26/2018
10/29/1987
10/20/2008
3/16/2000
Maintain optionality: During the quiet, or at least quieter, periods of bear markets, exposure through options (long volatility or long/short combinations like long put/call spreads) allowS traders to maintain a position and have a degree of distance to the risk of wild swings in markets. A long volatility position allows a trader to know the maximum risk and that at least a position can be maintained until the expiry date of the option.

Keep some funds in reserve for excessive pessimism: Traders should be careful not to fully commit an excessive percentage of capital to only one outcome – especially over a short time horizon. In the modern era, this has proven doubly necessary because of the rise of more forceful policy responses that can turn market sentiment so quickly. One longer-term strategy is to slowly raise allocations to risky assets like equities if declines accelerate in parabolic fashion; market turns inevitably happen when things can’t seem to get any worse.
Fade the extremes: While we talk about the two-way volatility risk above, traders should also recognise that asymmetries in price action are common as sell-offs tend to end more abruptly than rallies. So profit-taking on downside trades is often timeliest when volatility is reaching new extremes (or when new extremes in price are not seeing new extremes in fear levels) and a contrarian, more negative mindset when the market is rallying but with fading momentum. Volatility in bear markets nearly always rises and falls in inverse correlation with the price action, so contrarian exposure to the downside normally gets cheaper as bear squeezes see implied volatility falling (downside put options become less expensive). 

Follow the technicians: In a steady, grinding bull market marked by stolid, boring appreciation driven by steady investor inflows, technical analysis offers less predictive value as the self-evident trend is clear for everyone to see. But in bear markets, when liquidity is poor and emotion is high, technical analysis can yield more useful observations. Some of these are self-fulfilling, for example as prominent Fibonacci levels or moving averages come into view. Other technical analysis approaches are more subtle, for example Elliot Wave analysis. For example, have a look at Elliot Wave discussions of the 2007-09 bear market and the excellent fit in this episode of these classic wave patterns.

Beware of correlations: This is critical. Often, investors are passively exposed to some spectrum of risk-taking that looks diversified when times are calm, but suddenly appears less so when market fear levels heat up as seen in the chart below. Often, traders may not realise that portfolio exposures may have some underlying general exposure to “risk” and may suddenly move together when previously, the positions appeared to offer diversification, simply because investors are “selling everything”. So it is vital that traders monitor correlations across positions to understand if they excessively leveraged to the general direction of the market. In high-energy bear markets of the not-so-distant past, JPY longs have been virtually indistinguishable from S&P 500 shorts or long US Treasury trades. 

Chart: cross-market correlation


This is an intraday chart plotting the e-mini S&P 500 future against the US 10-year yield (moving inversely to Treasury prices) and the AUDUSD exchange rates during the general market meltdown in December 2018. Note the obvious directional sympathy in these instruments, which prior to this episode often showed weak or no correlation.

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