14 July 2010

Japan: the picture of a multi-decade bear market

When most people think of bear markets they tend to imagine a relatively short-term affair that reaches a bottom, over a year or two, and then recovers for many years (or even decades) in the future. Bear markets, in short, are just temporary blips as stock markets (and economies) move on to ever greater heights. Japan’s experience with a bear market that is over 20 years old shows that these simplistic assumptions regarding bear markets don’t always hold true.

A close examination of the Nikkei stock index for the last 30 years is a harrowing study in how pernicious, and grinding, bear markets can be. What is perhaps the most shocking is to see that this multi-decade bear market was punctuated by periods of considerable recovery, and growth, which would last anywhere from 1 to 5 years. There were numerous times where the Nikkei rallied 50%, or even more than 100% over a span of several years, only to lose all those gains and fall into a deeper pit.

The persistent trend downward is unmistakable, standing some 75% lower than its 1989 height as of June 2010, but this masks the times where it looked quite convincingly as if Japan was finally turning the corner.

As the United States embarks on its own deflationary journey it is important not to lose sight of what has happened in places like Japan. It is quite probable that America will also see strong rallies, and periods of apparent recovery (lasting for years, in fact), only to see all those hopes dashed as the economy goes into yet a deeper funk to lower lows. Deflation is a slow process and does not go in a straight line.

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