There can be few words of investment jargon used so casually as ‘bull’ and ‘bear’.
The terms have the brand power of Hoover or Biro.
The great Wall Street broker, Merrill Lynch, was nicknamed ‘Raging Bull’ (until it inappropriately went bust in 2008).
Indeed, the very symbol of Wall Street is the famous three-tonne bronze statue of the Charging Bull in Bowling Green Park. Everyone surely knows that a bull wants or expects prices to rise and the bear is the opposite.
The words are so universally accepted that they have almost risen beyond jargon.
In the sheltered world of financial professionals, the terms are omnipresent. We can be bullish of the weather or bearish about Liverpool’s chances of making the Champions League.
The stockbroker in the pub can be bullish of the Doom Bar ale but a bear of the Continental lager. Where other than in the mind of a broker does ‘I’m a big bull of the iPhone 6’ make any sense at all?
Sadly, I am sure everyone reading this will know exactly what that statement of purest gobbledegook means.
The origins of the terms are unknown. There are a number of theories, but no definitive answer.
One that is definitely wrong is that they are references to the Bulteel and Barings banks. Both were inconveniently founded long after the words were first recorded.
Another is that the original London Stock Exchange operated via a bulletin board, which was either covered in ‘bull’ notes or else was bare.
Possibly the most frequently purported but gruesome explanation is the creatures’ chosen methods of killing. A bull is supposed to gore upwards, while a bear paws downwards.
Allegedly the most likely source was the tendency of traders of bearskins to sell to their customers before they had the skins. They were therefore ‘short’ of skins in the hope that they could buy them cheaper from the hunters. A bearskin trader hoped that prices would fall. In the time of bear and bull baiting, the bull was merely the counterpart to the bear.
There is recent fascination with bull and bear markets. We read that such-and-such stock exchange or index has ‘entered a bear market’ or ‘is in a technical bull market’.
For example, the 30 per cent fall in Chinese equity prices apparently means the Shanghai Composite index is in a bear market. No matter that the index is still roughly 80 per cent up over the past year at the time of writing.
It is now accepted wisdom that a 20 per cent move in an index constitutes a bull or bear market.
Like Mr Benn’s shopkeeper, this definition has appeared as if by magic. There has never been a mathematical denotation of precisely what constitutes a bull or bear market. Nor should there be.