It happened to the small-cap Russell 2000 in mid-November. Then, the Nasdaq Composite in late November. The S&P 500 followed in early December. And now, it just happened for the Dow Jones Industrial Average. One by one, all of these major benchmark indexes have fallen victim to the ominous-sounding death cross, a technical analysis indication that's considered exceptionally bearish.
A death cross is a chart pattern defined by technical analysts as the crossing of a shorter-term moving average below a longer-term moving average. Typically, the most common moving averages used in this pattern are the 50-day and 200-day moving averages.
The death cross rarely occurs on major equity indexes like the Dow. The index has formed only a small handful of such patterns in the past decade. As a result, it's one of the most widely watched technical formations that exists, and it's also among the patterns thought of as most foreboding.
This is especially the case since recent market moves have been unusually bearish, volatile, and prolonged. On Thursday, not only did the Dow confirm the noted death cross, the Nasdaq Composite fell briefly into bear market territory, as it dropped slightly more than 20% from its late August peak at a few points during the day. The Dow isn't there yet, but could soon be.
The fact that the Dow has joined the death cross club may not be all bad. Only in a very few cases has the pattern resulted in an acute and extended sell-off. More often, a market recovery commences within a few short months after a death cross. Let's hope that will be the case this time around.