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Wednesday, September 2, 1998 Published at 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK

Business: The Economy

Bear necessities

Has the bull run its course?

The bears are warning that the bull market is about to come to a painful end. But how does one tell a genuine bear from a phoney one? The BBC North America Correspondent Richard Quest attempts to explain how.

It may not be as popular as spotting the first cuckoo of spring, but today the hunt is on.

Who has spotted the bears of the world financial market? It sounds an easy question.

What does a bear look like? How can you tell if there's one attacking your investments?

Surely it's obvious.

[ image: BBC business correspondent Richard Quest]
BBC business correspondent Richard Quest
It's a large attack on stocks which causes serious damage to wealth.

Unfortunately it's not as easy as that., Usually a fall in stock prices of 10% is called a correction.

One that in the past few months has reversed itself rapidly.

A bear market is a fall of 15 to 20%. By that technical definition the New York market is around 18% lower than its all time high back in July.

And recovery seems difficult.

So the current turmoil in world stock markets has left many wondering whether the bull market, which has now run for more than six years, has finally gasped its last on Wall Street and is being overrun by bears running down the street, anxious to sell.

All this depends on whether ordinary inverstors and the large insitutions are prepared to commit more money to stocks, or if they will run for the safety of fixed income instruments like government bonds.

Bears versus the bulls

Which is why so many economists are reluctant to declare the first sighting.

Take John Ryding, the senior economist at Bear Stearns in New York.

John Ryding at Bear Sterns: It's a "serious correction"
He views the current fall as a "serious, very serious correction" but refuses to declare a bear market saying this requires a "sustained reduction of equity prices over a period of time."

He believes that with low inflation, low interest rates and adaquate growth US equity prices will be higher this time next year, thus it does not have the makings of a true 'bear' market.

More bearish is Michael Derks at Nomura in London.

He believes the name of the game is 'wealth preservation' and the preservation of capital.

[ image: The bears are always growling in the background]
The bears are always growling in the background
As he puts it, "minimise your equity exposure and keep things safe."

He is in no doubt. "We are in a bear market," he says "and will be in it for a good period of time."

"These equity markets are going a lot lower, the current price action is dreadful."

Nomura's Michael Derks: 'The price section today is dreadful'
The reason this is important is because no-one likes to see a bear. It heralds a completely different investment strategy.

One based on falling stock prices and shorting stocks.

It is fundamentally depressing to recognise that the situation will get worse.

It also alienates the ordinary investor who is usually excluded from the game, because they can't just buy their stocks and forget them.

Do that and you could lose a great deal of money.

If Ryding is right, and this is a "serious correction" then the ordinary investor has nothing to fear.

Hold on and the bulls will drive the bears out.

If he's wrong, then head for the safety of bonds and bills before the bears eat your lunch, your dinner... school fees... retirement funds... new home... and so on.

Which is why it may look like a bear, sound like a bear, act like a bear, and still turn out to be a bull in disguise.

We won't know the true answer until it's too late, of that there can be agreement.

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