There is no numerically specific definition of a stock market crash but the term commonly applies to steep double-digit percentage losses in a stock market index over a period of several days. Crashes are often distinguished from bear markets by panic selling and abrupt, dramatic price declines. Bear markets are periods of declining stock market prices that are measured in months or years. Crashes are often associated with bear markets, however, they do not necessarily go hand in hand. The crash of 1987, for example, did not lead to a bear market. Likewise, the Japanese bear market of the 1990s occurred over several years without any notable crashes.
What Happens When the Stock Market Crashes?
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Despite fears of a repeat of the 1930s Depression, the market rallied immediately after the crash, posting a record one-day gain of 102.27 the very next day and 186.64 points on Thursday October 22. It took only two years for the Dow to recover completely; by September 1989, the market had regained all of the value it had lost in the 1987 crash. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained six-tenths of a percent during the calendar year 1987.
The economy had been growing for most of the Roaring Twenties. It was a technological golden age, as innovations such as the radio, automobile, aviation, telephone, and the power grid were deployed and adopted. Companies that had pioneered these advances, like Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and General Motors, saw their stocks soar. Financial corporations also did well, as Wall Street bankers floated mutual fund companies (then known as investment trusts) like the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation. Investors were infatuated with the returns available in the stock market, especially by the use of leverage through margin debt.
Markets can also be stabilized by large entities purchasing massive quantities of stocks, essentially setting an example for individual traders and curbing panic selling. However, these methods are not only unproven, they may not be effective. In one famous example, the Panic of 1907, a 50 percent drop in stocks in New York set off a financial panic that threatened to bring down the financial system. J. P. Morgan, the famous financier and investor, convinced New York bankers to step in and use their personal and institutional capital to shore up markets.
The Dow was already down 20 percent from its September 3 high, according to Yahoo Finance DJIA Historical Prices. That signaled a bear market. In late September, investors had been worried about massive declines in the British stock market. Investors in Clarence Hatry's company lost billions when they discovered he used fraudulent collateral to buy United Steel. A few days later, Great Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, described America's stock market as "a perfect orgy of speculation." The next day, U.S. newspapers agreed.
Research at the New England Complex Systems Institute has found warning signs of crashes using new statistical analysis tools of complexity theory. This work suggests that the panics that lead to crashes come from increased mimicry in the market. A dramatic increase in market mimicry occurred during the whole year before each market crash of the past 25 years, including the recent financial crisis. When investors closely follow each other's cues, it is easier for panic to take hold and affect the market. This work is a mathematical demonstration of a significant advance warning sign of impending market crashes.