Identify Stock Market Correction vs Crashes to Protect Yourself

How Can You Tell If It's a Correction or a Crash?

stock trader facing a market correction
Barclays Capital trader Mario Picone holds his head while working on the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange on September 9, 2011 in New York City. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Definition: A stock market correction is when the market falls 10 percent from its 52-week high. Wise investors welcome it. A pullback allows the market to consolidate before going toward higher highs. Each of the bull markets in the last 40 years has had a correction. It's a natural part of the market cycle. Corrections can occur in any asset class. 

What causes a correction? Typically, it's an event that creates panicked selling.

It can be a gut-wrenching time. Many beginning investors will feel like joining the mad dash to the exits. That's exactly the wrong thing to do. Why? The stock market usually makes up the losses in three months or so. If you sell during the correction, you will probably not buy in time to make up your losses.

Corrections are inevitable. When the stock market is going up, investors want to get in on the potential profits. It leads to irrational exuberance. That makes stock prices go well above their underlying value. A correction is when prices return to a sensible level.

Correction Vs. Crash

A stock market crash is when the 10 percent price drop occurs in just one day. Crashes can lead to a bear market. That's when the market falls another 10 percent, for a total decline of 20 percent or more.

stock market crash can cause a recession. How? Stocks are how corporations get cash to grow their businesses.

If stock prices fall dramatically, corporations have less ability to grow. Firms that don't produce will eventually lay off workers to stay solvent. As workers are laid off, they spend less. A drop in demand means less revenue. That means more layoffs. As the decline continues, the economy contracts, creating a recession.

How to Protect Yourself Right Now

You must protect yourself before prices begin to fall. That's because a crash happens too fast. Trying to decide if a correction is turning into a crash is known as timing the market. It's nearly impossible to do. Just when you're sure the 5 percent drop will turn into a 10 percent correction, the market rebounds and hits new highs. 

The best way to protect yourself from a correction will also protect you from a crash. That's to develop a diversified portfolio right now. That means holding a balanced mix of stocks, bonds, and commodities. The stocks will make sure you profit from market upswings. The bonds and commodities protect you from market corrections and crashes. 

The specific mix of stocks, bonds, and commodities is called your asset allocation. It depends on your personal financial goals. If you don't need the money for years, then you'll want to have a higher mix of stocks. If you require the money next year, you'll want more bonds. 

The best way to create the right asset allocation for your goals is to work with a financial planner. He or she has computer programs that determine the right mix. Your planner can also suggest good individual stocks, bonds, or mutual funds that have a proven track record.

 

Once you are well-diversified, make sure you rebalance your portfolio every year. For example, if commodities do well and stocks do poorly, your portfolio will have too high a percentage of commodities. To rebalance, you'll sell some commodities and buy some stocks. That forces you to sell high (the commodities) and buy low (the stocks). With diversification, you will feel safe to ride out any stock market corrections.

If you want, you can take further precautions. When stock indices like the Dow hit record highs, sell some of your winners. Hold this money in a liquid account like money markets or Treasuries. If a correction hits, use that cash to buy some stocks at lower prices. You could use dollar cost averaging to slowly buy back in after the market falls 5 percent, then again at 10 percent.

You could also buy gold if the stock market corrects. Studies show that gold prices increase for 15 days after a crash. (Source: "How to Survive a 10 Percent Correction," Kiplinger's, August 2014.)

History

The stock market typically has a correction several times a year.  For example, between 1983 and 2011, more than half of all quarters had a correction. That averages out to 2.27 per year. Fewer than 20 percent of all quarters experienced a bear market. That averages out to .72 times per year. (Source: "How Often Does the S&P Have Negative 10 Percent and 20 Percent Price Moves?" QVM Group LLC, March 19, 2013.)

Stock corrections are more frequent than crashes because they occur when the economy is still in the expansion phase. Why would the market correct even when economic data is upbeat? The stock market is a leading economic indicator. Investors look at future expected earnings to forecast corporate profits. They buy or sell stocks based on these projections. Sometimes investors become too optimistic. They create a rally that exceeds current economic performance. That's when the market gets over-extended. Once that happens, any bit of doubtful news causes a correction.

As long as the future trend remains optimistic, the buying will resume. That leads to an even stronger bull market rally. In other words, a stock market correction can help the stock market catch its breath and hit even higher peaks. 

Most recessions occur with stock market declines of 30 percent or more. That's the contraction and trough phase of the business cycle. A crash can create them, but usually larger economic events are the underlying cause. That's what makes a crash more devastating than a correction.