Stocks and bonds ended 2014 in a bull market, and most investors hope the bears will stay away. A bear market is one in which prices are going down, as opposed to a bull market in which values are rising.
These designations for pessimism and optimism about the market outlook originated in the 18th century, but the exact origins are debatable. The bear as a symbol of pessimism can be traced to 1709 in a shortening of “bearskin jobber,” a term for a merchant who sells bearskins before the bear is caught and hopes that the price will go down by the time he provides the goods. From about 1720, the term was paired with bull, indicating one who believed that prices would go up. Some speculate that bull was adopted as an opposite to bear because of the use of those two animals in the sports of bear-baiting and bull-baiting.
Others trace the bull and bear to the London Stock Exchange during the Crimean War in the 1850s. Britain was typified in political cartoons as “John Bull” against its Russian adversary, usually depicted as a bear. Even though John Bull is not an animal at all, but a stout country squire, and the lion is the customary English animal, the bull-bear symbols were picked up by London stock traders for positive and negative positions.
It’s also suggested that the bull-bear symbolism stems from the fighting styles of the two animals that parallel movements on the stock market: when attacking a bull thrusts his horns up in the air, while a bear strikes downward. Thus if the price of stocks moves upward, it’s a bull market, and if they’re going down, it’s a bear market.
Finally, some say the symbols simply reflect the personality of the two animals: bulls charge ahead and bears move cautiously.
Wherever the symbolism originated, it was popularized in the 1860s by cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly. In 1879 William Holbrook Beard painted a notable work called “The Bulls and Bears in the Market,” an image of the two animals fighting each other in front of the New York Stock Exchange. And in 1883 a board game called “Bulls and Bears: the Great Wall Street Game” became popular.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is so full of bull that people cannot bear him, unfortunately remains undeterred by his defects.
The Russian symbol is the Bear,
The Brits’, the Lion most regal,
And matched against this awesome pair,
Americans have their Eagle.
But by that Eagle, I’m appalled:
He’s not so very brainy,
He’s predatory, mean, and bald—
Reminds me of Dick Cheney.