Hamilton identified three stages to both primary bull markets and primary bear markets. These stages relate as much to the psychological state of the market as to the movement of prices. A primary bull market is defined as a long sustained advance marked by improving business conditions that elicit increased speculation and demand for stocks. A primary bear market is defined as a long sustained decline marked by deteriorating business conditions and subsequent decrease in demand for stocks. In both primary bull markets and primary bear markets, there will be secondary movements that run counter to the major trend.
Primary Bull Market - Stage 1 - Accumulation
Hamilton noted that the first stage of a bull market was largely indistinguishable from the last reaction rally of a bear market. Pessimism, which was excessive at the end of the bear market, still reigns at the beginning of a bull market. It is a period when the public is out of stocks, the news from corporate America is bad and valuations are usually at historical lows. However, it is at this stage that the so-called "smart money" begins to accumulate stocks. This is the stage of the market when those with patience see value in owning stocks for the long haul. Stocks are cheap, but nobody seems to want them. This is the stage where Warren Buffet stated in the summer of 1974 that now was the time to buy stocks and become rich. Everyone else thought he was crazy.
In the first stage of a bull market, stocks begin to find a bottom and quietly firm up. When the market starts to rise, there is widespread disbelief that a bull market has begun. After the first leg peaks and starts to head back down, the bears come out proclaiming that the bear market is not over. It is at this stage that careful analysis is warranted to determine if the decline is a secondary movement (a correction of the first leg up). If it is a secondary move, then the low forms above the previous low, a quiet period will ensue as the market firms and then an advance will begin. When the previous peak is surpassed, the beginning of the second leg and a primary bull will be confirmed.
Primary Bull Market - Stage 2 - Big Move
The second stage of a primary bull market is usually the longest, and sees the largest advance in prices. It is a period marked by improving business conditions and increased valuations in stocks. Earnings begin to rise again and confidence starts to mend. This is considered the easiest stage to make money as participation is broad and the trend followers begin to participate.
Primary Bull Market - Stage 3 - Excess
The third stage of a primary bull market is marked by excessive speculation and the appearance of inflationary pressures. (Dow formed these theorems about 100 years ago, but this scenario is certainly familiar.) During the third and final stage, the public is fully involved in the market, valuations are excessive and confidence is extraordinarily high. This is the mirror image to the first stage of the bull market. A Wall Street axiom: When the taxi cab drivers begin to offer tips, the top cannot be far off.
Primary Bear Market - Stage 1 - Distribution
Just as accumulation is the hallmark of the first stage of a primary bull market, distribution marks the beginning of a bear market. As the "smart money" begins to realize that business conditions are not quite as good as once thought, they start to sell stocks. The public is still involved in the market at this stage and become willing buyers. There is little in the headlines to indicate a bear market is at hand and general business conditions remain good. However, stocks begin to lose a bit of their luster and the decline begins to take hold.
While the market declines, there is little belief that a bear market has started and most forecasters remain bullish. After a moderate decline, there is a reaction rally (secondary move) that retraces a portion of the decline. Hamilton noted that reaction rallies during bear markets were quite swift and sharp. As with his analysis of secondary moves in general, Hamilton noted that a large percentage of the losses would be recouped in a matter of days or perhaps weeks. This quick and sudden movement would invigorate the bulls to proclaim the bull market alive and well. However, the reaction high of the secondary move would form and be lower than the previous high. After making a lower high, a break below the previous low would confirm that this was the second stage of a bear market.
Primary Bear Market - Stage 2 - Big Move
As with the primary bull market, stage two of a primary bear market provides the largest move. This is when the trend has been identified as down and business conditions begin to deteriorate. Earnings estimates are reduced, shortfalls occur, profit margins shrink and revenues fall. As business conditions worsen, the sell-off continues.
Primary Bear Market - Stage 3 - Despair
At the top of a primary bull market, hope springs eternal and excess is the order of the day. By the final stage of a bear market, all hope is lost and stocks are frowned upon. Valuations are low, but the selling continues as participants seek to sell no matter what. The news from corporate America is bad, the economic outlook bleak and not a buyer is to be found. The market will continue to decline until all the bad news is fully priced into stocks. Once stocks fully reflect the worst possible outcome, the cycle begins again.
Hamilton and Dow stressed that for a primary trend buy or sell signal to be valid, both the Industrial Average and the Rail Average must confirm each other. If one average records a new high or new low, then the other must soon follow for a Dow theory signal to be considered valid.
For more information visit http://stockcharts.com/school/doku.php?id=chart_school:market_analysis:dow_theory