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Friday, October 10, 2008

Bulls and bears, and the Dow index

Yet another shock announcement: Stocks have plunged again, and the Dow is under 8,600 -- and this in an era when hitting 10,000 was considered pretty drastic. "This is the virulence of a bear market that we have not seen in a generation," declared one CEO.

We all know (I think) that a bear market is one that falls, and a bull market is one that rises. The statue of a bull outside beleaguered J. P Morgan is an icon of Wall Street. But what is the origin of the terms "Bull Market" and "Bear Market"?

In California, during the goldrush and even earlier, entrepreneurs used to build a sort of stadium to entertain those with gold dust or coins to spend. This was a sand arena surrounded by a stout high fence, known as a 'pit.' A newcomer to town would notice first that the posts on the inside of the fence had been clawed and gnawed, evidently by some large and angry animal. If he had read the posters plastered to the walls of the local buildings, he would know that animal was probably one of the fabulously large bears native to the area. If the sand was trampled and bloodied from a previous contest, he would guess that the blood had come from a bull.

A forerunner of the bull and bear fights that were so popular in early California was the good old English custom of bear-baiting, a favorite spectator sport of Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth. In England, a bear was chained to a post set near enough to the edge of the arena to make the contest exciting for the nearby spectators, and then dogs were released into the arena. The dogs were replaced as they were killed or maimed, until they ran out of dogs―in which case, the bear was the winner―or else the bear was killed. To enliven the brutal sport, other animals might be matched against the bear, and often this was a bull.
In California, grizzlies―which roamed the forests in their thousands―were trapped and carted, snarling and ripe for battle, in cages to the arenas. Once chained to the post, it was usual for a bear to scrape a deep hollow in the sand, where it lay like a shaggy rug while it waited for what was to come. Often, dogs were sent in first, in an echo of the English sport. Their job was to worry and infuriate the bear. While this was going on, the audience arrived, often from many miles away, as bull and bear fighting was hugely popular. The men watched from horseback, while a special dais provided elevated viewing for women and children.

Once the bear was well roused, and the spectators were assembled, the other main feature of the program was released into the arena. This was a wild bull, itself tormented to a pitch of ferocity. The bull's only chance of survival was to charge the bear at once, head lowered to gore him through the chest, and then fling him up through the air. This was quite a challenge, as the grizzly could weigh more than one thousand pounds, but occasionally happened. More usually, the grizzly countered the charge by rising to his full height, massive and utterly fearsome. Setting claws and teeth into the bull, he dragged him down, sinking slowly backward into the hollow, and taking the bull with him as the crowd roared for blood.

Originally, it was an entertainment staged and enjoyed by vaqueros. During the goldrush these fights became commercialized, with particularly large and fearsome bears―given jazzy names like 'General Scott'―being valued at $1,500 or even more. The fights were advertised weeks beforehand. Tickets cost $1.50, and after 1853 were taxed by the legislature. "The scene was gay and brilliant," wrote one spectator, enchanted by the dust, scent, and excitement of the crowd, the jingle of golden coins and silver spurs, the rattle of horse leathers, the cries of the hawkers, the showily dressed women, and the brightly striped serapes worn by many of the men.

It is said that Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, was so impressed by one such "gay and brilliant" scene that he coined the phrase "bull and bear" for the ups and downs of the financial market. As a successful bull tosses the bear, so a "bull market" is one that rises. A "bear market," on the other hand, is like the bear that lurks in its hollow, rises to its menacing height, and then implacably drags the bull down.

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