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How to Survive a Bear Market if You’re Over 50

The stakes can feel higher the older you get, but you can learn to live with these steep stock selloffs

Silhouette of a bear walking into frame against an illuminated background of colorful financial stock market charts

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The stock market isn’t officially in a bear market yet, but some segments of it certainly are. What causes bear markets, and how do they affect older investors who are saving for retirement or already retired?

A bear market is, by definition, a 20 percent decline from the most recent market top. Currently, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index, the benchmark index that measures the performance of 500 of the largest U.S. stocks, is down about 17 percent from its peak on Jan. 3, 2022. In stock market parlance, that’s a “correction,” which is a decline of between 10 percent and 20 percent.

According to brokerage firm Charles Schwab & Co., corrections are relatively common. The S&P 500 has fallen at least 10 percent in 10 out of the past 20 years, with an average pullback of 15 percent. And in two additional years, the decline was just short of 10 percent.

The carnage within some stocks in the Nasdaq 100 has been, well, grizzly. Netflix shares, for example, have plunged 75 percent from a high on Nov. 17, 2021. Online payment company PayPal is down 74 percent from its high; drugmaker Moderna is down 73 percent from its high.

Bear markets since 1929

Year Number of days Decline amount Months to break even
1929 998 86% 268
1933 604 34% 7
1937 390 55% 94
1938 1266 46% 34
1946 353 28% 37
1948 363 21% 12
1956 446 22% 11
1961 196 28% 14
1966 240 22% 7
1968 543 36% 21
1973 630 48% 69
1980 622 27% 3
1987 101 34% 20
2000 929 49% 56
2007 517 57% 49
2020 33 34% 5
Average 514 39% 44

Source: S&P Capital IQ

What causes bear markets?

There is no one cause for bear markets, which is why trying to predict them tends to be futile. Here are the general culprits for unleashing the bear:

  • Rising interest rates. Lenders, whether they are giving you a home mortgage or financing a mega-million-dollar bond offering, like to get their money back. They also want a rate of return that’s higher than inflation. If they think inflation will rise, lenders start raising their interest rates. After all, if you earn 3 percent on an investment and inflation averages 4 percent, you’ve lost a percentage point.

Why is that bad for stocks? If investors can get a relatively good rate (after inflation) on a loan, then they will tend to move money out of stocks and into interest-bearing investments, such as government bonds. In addition, higher rates mean that businesses have to pay more for loans, which reduces corporate earnings.

  • External factors. The world is an uncertain place, and sometimes events come out of the blue that cause the stock market to sell off. In October 1973, for example, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an embargo on oil exports, causing the price of oil to triple in a few months. The price hike not only affected consumers, who had to wait in long lines for gasoline, but the many companies that relied on oil to make or ship their goods. The bear market that started in January 1973 lasted 69 months and clawed the S&P 500 for a 48.2 percent loss. The short, sharp bear market in 2020 was caused almost entirely by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Sobriety. The stock market is a place for optimists: You buy stocks because you think corporate profits will increase, the economy will be healthy, and prices will rise. Every so often, however, stock investors get too optimistic, making big bets on stocks that don’t deserve all that money. In 2000, for example, investors made huge bets on online companies such as the now-defunct Pets.com. Eventually, investors wised up and realized that those companies were never going to make money, and that started the big bear market of 2000.

It’s entirely possible to have all three factors at once. Currently, for example, both long-term and short-term interest rates are rising, albeit from very low levels. The Russian invasion of Ukraine not only made the world a less stable place but also drove up the price of oil. And big moves in dubious stocks, such as video game retailer GameStop, have also been fairly common.


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What to do

Bear markets are almost always discovered in hindsight, and your reaction to them should depend on your current financial position as well as your goals. For example, if you’re 50 years old and plan to retire in 15 years, your best bet may be to keep socking away money in your 401(k) or IRA in the same proportions as you have been. The average bear recovers in 3½ years. In the meantime, if you invest regularly, you hope to be buying stock at progressively lower prices. That’s a good thing: You want to buy low now and sell high later.

If you’re retired, don’t take withdrawals from your stock funds in a bear market unless you have no other choice. You won’t have income to cover your losses. And if your stock fund is down 15 percent and you withdraw 4 percent, your account will be down 19 percent. Withdrawals in a bear market just make things worse.

Instead, most financial planners recommend that you have a “bucket” plan. Consider putting your investments in three buckets: ultrasafe cash investments, such as bank CDs and money market funds; moderate-risk investments, such as bond funds; and high-risk investments, such as stock funds.

Use your cash investments for making withdrawals in volatile markets. Your riskier funds will still get hammered, but you won’t make the situation worse by taking withdrawals that lock in the losses. When your stock funds have recovered, you can replenish your cash and bond buckets — and be prepared for the next bear market.

John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and  USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's  USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.