Putting funds through the bear market test

By Dan Hallett, CFA, CFP on August 4th, 2011

The Globe & Mail’s Rob Carrick recently wrote about the lessons learned from those investments that lost the most in calendar 2008.  One of his most important points is in the very first sentence where he wrote,  “Never buy an investment product without first checking how it performed in 2008“.  There are a couple of items related to this sound advice that are worthy of a more detailed discussion.

Isolating bear markets

To keep things simple so that readers can replicate the analysis, Carrick focused on calendar 2008 returns – an easy period for which to screen.  Since bear markets almost never fall neatly into any calendar year, it is more insightful to calculate bear market during isolated bear market periods.

To help in this exercise, the table below lists a handful of asset classes, their respective bear market losses, total return during the subsequent recoveries, associated time frames and total returns on the ’round trip’ for each.

  Decline Time Frame Recovery Time Frame Round Trip to 6/2011  
Canadian Stocks -43.35% 5/2008 – 2/2009 74.94% 2/2009 – 6/2011 -0.89%  
U.S. Stocks (CAD) -51.24% 8/2000 – 2/2009 43.09% 2/2009 – 6/2011 -30.23%  
Overseas Stocks (CAD) -46.64% 4/2007 – 2/2009 48.11% 2/2009 – 6/2011 -20.97%  
Emerging Markets Stocks (CAD) -48.49% 10/2007 – 2/2009 103.72% 2/2009 – 6/2011 4.94%  
High Yield Bonds (CAD) -27.70% 2/2007 – 11/2008 59.02% 11/2008 – 6/2011 14.97%  
U.S. Stocks (USD) -50.95% 10/2007 – 2/2009 88.56% 2/2009 – 6/2011 -7.51%  

Financial advisors and investors can use the above table when doing homework on a particular fund or other product.  Since it was listed in Rob Carrick’s table, I’ll use the Dynamic Power Canadian Growth fund to illustrate how to use the dates in the above table.  When digging into the fund, you can look up its profile on Globeinvestor and use the chart function.

The smaller the time increment, the larger the loss you’re likely to find.  This fund’s 50% loss in calendar 2008 is steep but its actual top-to-bottom loss is quite a bit larger.  Globeinvestor’s mutual fund charting tool – or something similar – can be used to calculate the loss using monthly returns.  Set the start date at May 2008 (the market peak based on month-end data), set the end date as February 2009 (the month-end market bottom) and select the S&P/TSX Total Return as the benchmark.  Click “Draw Chart” to update it and you’ll find that the index lost more than 43% (as noted above) but this fund actually lost 59% based on month-end data.  Daily data reveal an even worse loss, exceeding 63%, for this popular fund.

So even though the fund has soared 87% from the market bottom, the fund’s steep loss means that it still must gain more than 45% to touch its previous peak on a total return basis.  This is but one illustration of one of Carrick’s other points – the mathematics of loss recovery.

The bear market test

Once comfortable with this analysis, the tables below detail start and end dates and other selected data for U.S. and Canadian equity bear markets post-WWII.  Realistically, it may be relevant to replicate the above analysis for only the last two bear markets but it’s useful to look further back in time to get a better feel for overall risk for the asset class.

You’ll find that many funds sailed through the previous bear market that began in 2000.  This gave many investors too much confidence in the bear market saviours of that time.  Investors weren’t so lucky a few years ago since there was nowhere to hide within equity markets from the 2007-09 bear.  But starting with a simple screen (for calendar 2008 returns) and doing a bit of extra work to isolate bear market losses will help provide greater context of a fund’s historical risk.

Bear Markets (U.S. stocks) Mos Since last bear recovery Peak-Trough Decline Months to Trough Months to Recovery
Start End
Averages 66 -34.41% 15 31
Nov-1947 Oct-1949 34 -21.76% 6 35
Jun-1962 Apr-1963 152 -22.28% 6 10
Dec-1968 Jan-1972 68 -31.45% 19 19
Jan-1973 Sep-1976 12 -43.34% 21 24
Sep-1987 Jul-1989 132 -30.21% 3 20
Sep-2000 Mar-2006 134 -43.26% 25 42
Oct-2007 ? 19 -50.95% 16 ?


Bear Markets (Cdn stocks) Mos Since last bear recovery Peak-Trough Decline Months to Trough Months to Recovery
Start End
Averages 43 -31.77% 11 24
Jun-1957 Apr-1959   -26.90% 7 16
Jun-1969 Jan-1972 122 -25.38% 13 19
Nov-1973 Apr-1978 17 -34.96% 11 43
Jul-1981 Apr-1983 39 -39.16% 13 10
Aug-1987 Jul-1989 52 -25.44% 4 20
Jan-1990 Mar-1993 6 -20.08% 10 29
Apr-1998 Nov-1999 61 -27.47% 5 15
Sep-2000 Jul-2005 10 -43.20% 25 34
May-2008 Feb-2011 34 -43.35% 9 33

– Sources of raw data:  Dr. Robert Schiller, S&P/Citigroup, BlackRock Inc.

Data for U.S. stocks are in U.S. dollars.  Averages are for all U.S. stock bear markets starting in 1871

See also:  Five things you should know about bear markets (Dec 2008)