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How far do stocks have to fall to enter a bear market as coronavirus-fueled selloff continues?

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 2/28/2020 William Watts

Evaluating a financial portfolio. © John Lamb/Getty Images Evaluating a financial portfolio.

Should investors beware of bears?

U.S. stocks entered a market correction — defined as a 10% drop from a recent peak — on Thursday as fears around the global spread of COVID-19 rocked financial markets. For the S&P 500 (SPX), the drop into a correction from an all-time high in just six trading days earlier was the fastest on record, according to Dow Jones Market Data. 

Equities opened sharply lower on Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) dropping more than 1,000 points at its session low, before trimming losses. The Dow remained down 296 points, or 1.1%, at 25,470, while the S&P 500 was off 0.8% at 2,956. The Nasdaq Composite (COMP) turned positive, up 0.2% at 8,583.

See: These are the only 7 stocks in the S&P 500 that rose while the market plunged

The S&P 500 would need to close at or below 2,708.92 to enter a bear market, according to Dow Jones Market Data, while the Dow would need to end at or below 23,641.14. The bear-market threshold for the Nasdaq rests at 7,853.74.

The speed of the current drop and uncertainty over the implications of the viral outbreak has left investors to wonder whether a bear market — defined as a 20% drop from a recent peak — could be in sight over coming weeks.

Related video: What's a bear market? (provided by The Street)

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“We are now past a mere 10% technical correction and seem to be heading for a bear market, which is only logical when one considers the global backdrop,” said Michael Every, senior strategist, Asia-Pacific, for Rabobank, in a Friday note.

At the same time, analysts reminded investors that stocks have seen plenty of corrections and smaller pullbacks, albeit not as rapid, over the course of a record bull market (by some measures) that’s poised to enter its 12th year next month. Those pullbacks offered welcome buying opportunities, with investors regularly rewarded for buying the dip.

Indeed, as Charlie Bilello, founder of Compound Capital Advisors, noted on Twitter: “They all seemed like the end of the world at the time.”

Some market watchers, while arguing against attempting to time the market, said relatively solid economic fundamentals mean that long-term investors should be prepared to use the downturn to look for buying opportunities.

“Looking at historical sharp market selloffs and spikes in market volatility during periods with generally healthy economic fundamentals suggest that the risk/reward for U.S. stocks is becoming more attractive,” said Mark Haefele, global chief investment officer for UBS Global Wealth Management, in a Thursday note.

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