What Is a Bull Market and What Does It Mean in 2018?

There certainly hasn't been a shortage of talk about the bull market recently -- from President Trump's Twitter to the top financial analysts. And it seems like the market has been on a fairly steady rise for the past 3,400-plus days. But, what exactly is a bull market? 

What Is a Bull Market? 

A bull market is when the securities market keeps rising -- or, when stock prices continue rising 20% from a previous drop of 20%. But, bull markets can refer to other markets as well (like housing or investment). 

Although it is difficult to predict when a bull market will happen, they are often the result of high investor confidence, a strong gross domestic product (GDP), decreasing unemployment rates, increasing corporate and investor profits and an increased demand for stocks or other securities. 

During a bull market, the three main stock indices -- S&P 500  , Nasdaq  (NDAQ) , and Dow Jones Industrial Average (DOW)  -- rise together. 

It is due to these factors that analysts assert the stock market is currently in the longest bull market on record -- hitting 3,453 days on August 22, 2018 from a low on March 9, 2009. 

Jump ahead to learn more about what bull markets mean today.

Attributes of a Bull Market 

While the predictors or aspects of a bull market may vary, they are generally characterized by a steady rise in stock prices (20% up from the previous low), a strong GDP, a low rate of unemployment and high investor confidence (especially in the equities markets). 

However, bull markets can be used to describe other markets as well (not exclusively stocks or bonds), like the housing market or commodities. 

Bull markets are typically perpetuated by overzealous investors whose optimism in the market keeps ratcheting stock prices higher and higher. Still, the main drivers of the bull market are an increase in top-line revenue (at a rate matching the rise in nominal GDP); increased top-line profit for companies and corporations (or earnings growth); buybacks (where companies buy back their own stock in the hopes of driving up the stock price -- usually because the company views the stock as undervalued); long-term monetary accommodation (with the Fed keeping lending costs low for companies); P/E ratio (the price of a share to the earnings of that share) and a buy-the-dip strategy -- where investors buy stocks at a discount after a selloff. 

One of the major factors affecting a bull market -- aside from actual, solid shifts in the economy -- is investor confidence. It is this confidence that prompts investors to buy-the-dip and rack up stock prices. And although company earnings growth or overall GDP growth are factors, the positive shift in this confidence has had a huge impact on the current bull market.

"Investors no longer fear shocks but love them," a Bank of America Merrill lynch equity derivatives research team, led by Nitin Saksena, told Bloomberg in a note last year. "Since 2013, central banks have stepped in (or communicated that they may step in) to protect markets, leaving investors confident enough to 'buy-the-dip.'"

Different Kinds of Bull Markets

While the term "bull market" can be used to describe the rising of prices in a variety of markets (like securities or housing), there are a couple other terms used to delineate specific kinds of bull markets.

For example, a secular bull market is a bull market lasting a long time -- typically between five and 25 years. In a secular bull market, market corrections (where prices decline 10% but increase again) are called primary market trends.

Another kind of bull market is a bond bull market -- which, not surprisingly, is when the rates of return for bonds are positive for a long period of time. 

Additionally, a gold bull market is when the price of gold continues increasing. Historically, 2011 saw a high of gold prices at $1,895 compared to the mid $300-$400 range it rested at in previous years. 

Bull vs. Bear Markets

While a bull market is one that is rising, a bear market is one that is declining (often due to economic factors or lack of investor confidence). 

As the opposite of the bull market, a bear market is characterized by any period of time where stocks (or other markets) decline by 20% from a previous high. And, while about a 10% decline in prices is considered a market correction, a bear market is when these prices decline even further into a more severe slide. For this reason, prices fall and investors become more pessimistic about the market, leading to a collective drop in confidence. 

Historically, from around 1926 to 2017, there have been nine bull markets and eight bear markets -- but since bull markets generally last longer and produce phenomenal gains, the "bull" is generally thought to always beat the "bear." 

Bull and bear markets generally follow the economic cycle, with economic expansion typically partnering with a bull market, and, on the contrary, bear markets typically come in tangent with economic contraction.

How Did the Bull Market Get Its Name? 

The correlation between bulls and bears was first formed in the 1500s when bulls and bears were chained to posts and watched as dogs attacked them (called bull and bear baiting). Since then, the term "bear" was first applied to the economic market in the 17th century, using the common phrase "Don't sell the bearskin before one has caught the bear" -- referring to hunting, but also applied to short-sellers selling stock before they actually owned it. 

The phrases "bull market" and "bear market" were then used in the 18th century, followed by cartoons and paintings referencing the market in the animal terms. 

More recently, bulls and bears are described by the action they make when attacking -- bulls rear upward (hence the rise in the market), whereas bears swing down (a decline in the market). 

Previous Bull Markets

There have been many bull markets since the 1920s. Several prominent bull markets include the longest stock bull market, which ran from 1982 to 2000 (the dot.com bust), which saw annual Dow returns of an average 16.8%. 

Additionally, several other notable bull markets include the 1949 (post-World War II) bull market that lasted over 2,600 days. 

And, as you've certainly heard, most analysts claim that the current market -- from 2009 until 2018 -- is the longest bull market since World War II. 

Bull Market of 2018

According to most, as of August 22, 2018, the current bull market has been the longest since the war. While this has certainly been up for debate among several analysts, most are gung-ho to announce the record. 

TheStreet's newsroom is among those to debate the issue, but the numbers speak for themselves -- with the S&P 500 rallying some 323% since its bear market low at around 676 in 2009. The index hit its previous high in January of 2018 -- reaching 2,872 -- but has since been topped by recent reports at around 2,900, after days of consecutive growth.

Last year, the S&P 500 delivered enormous returns of 18.4%. 

Since then, it seems all has been sunny on the Street.

The major indices are still green -- with the Nasdaq up two consecutive sessions, while the S&P 500 is up three consecutive sessions as of Thursday. 

And some market bulls, like chief investment strategist at Raymond James Jeff Saut, think the bull market could keep on charging ahead.

"1949 to 1966: Yes, there were pullbacks; didn't stop the secular bull. '82 to 2000: Yes, we had the crash in 1987. [It] didn't stop the secular bull market," Saut said in an interview with "Power Lunch" on Tuesday. "March 2019 will mark the 10th year of this bull market," and "We ought to have another seven-to-eight years left." 

Is the Bull Turning Into a Bear? 

Still, debate rages on about whether this bull market will continue plowing ahead, or whether it will be stopped in its tracks by a bear.

TheStreet's newsroom has also debated this question

While concerns over the upcoming predicted recession circulate, the next bear market is sure to be coming -- but the question remains, when? 

Jeff Kleintop, chief global investment strategist for Charles Schwab Corp (SCHW) told TheStreet back in June that the bear market may be a little ways away. 

"While we've seen drops maybe from 20% to 50% in the past, this one will be more of a garden variety recession. No big bubble associated with it," Kleintop said. "But that's still probably a year or so away. I think we're still in the melt up before that meltdown."

Much as it has for centuries, the bear versus bull debate rages on. 

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