A bearish market is traditionally defined as a period of negative returns in the broader market to the magnitude of between 15-20% or more. During this type of market, most stocks see their share prices fall, often substantially. There are several strategies that are used when investors believe that this market is about to occur or is occurring, which depend on an the investor's risk tolerance, investment time horizon and objectives. (For related reading, see Surviving Bear Country.)
One of the safest strategies, and the most extreme, is to sell all of your investments and either hold cash or invest the proceeds into much more stable financial instruments, such as short-term government bonds. By doing this, an investor can reduce his or her exposure to the stock market and minimize the effects of a bear market.
For investors looking to maintain positions in the stock market, a defensive strategy is usually taken. This type of strategy involves investing in larger companies with strong balance sheets and a long operational history, which are considered to be defensive stocks. The reason for this is that these larger more stable companies tend to be less affected by an overall downturn in the economy or stock market, making their share prices less susceptible to a larger fall. With strong financial positions, including a large cash position to meet ongoing operational expenses, these companies are more likely to survive downturns. These also include companies that service the needs of businesses and consumers, such as food businesses (people still eat even when the economy is in a downturn). On the other hand, it is the riskier companies, such as small growth companies, that are typically avoided because they are less likely to have the financial security that is required to survive downturns.
These are just two of the more common strategies and there is a wide range of other strategies tailored to a bear market. The most important thing is to understand that a bear market is a very difficult one for long investors because most stocks fall over the period, and most strategies can only limit the amount of downside exposure, not eliminate it.
From a logical perspective the perils of attempting to exit the market before it goes down are well documented. However, when asked: What do investors collectively tend to do during a bear market? We see that they often react by pulling money out of the market and flee to shorter term fixed instruments such as money market funds or CD’s. According to the Investment Company Fact Book, during the 2008 downturn investors withdrew $211 billion from mutual funds, while money market funds saw a net increase of $637 billion.
Reacting during a bear market can often be detrimental to long-term portfolio growth, especially during periods like the relatively short 17-month bear market from October of 2007 to March of 2009.