In Wall Street years, 2020 felt like a decade for markets

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2020 file photo a man wearing a mask passes the New York Stock Exchange in New York. Time stood still for most of the world in 2020, as lockdown life had every day bleeding into the next. But for Wall Street, its been a year locked in at super fast-forward. The stock market tumbled through years worth of losses in just over a month this spring, only to turn around and pack an entire bull markets worth of gains into less than nine months. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

NEW YORK – While lockdown life has kept time standing still for nearly everyone through 2020, Wall Street has been locked in at super fast-forward.

The stock market tumbled through years’ worth of losses in just over a month this spring, only to turn around and pack an entire bull market’s worth of gains into less than nine months. Even within the span of a few hours, the market in 2020 would sometimes careen to a loss that would have been remarkable for a full year.

Consider one day in March, when the S&P 500 plunged 12% after President Donald Trump acknowledged a recession may be on the way because of the pandemic. That was a worse loss than the index has suffered in 45 of the last 50 full years.

The good news is that the crazy action for markets in 2020 was likely a singular response to COVID-19, not a preview of a new normal. Market watchers say investors can expect movements closer to what they're used to next year, as the economy is nursed back to health following the rollout of one or more COVID-19 vaccines.

If anything, analysts say the whiplash provides another lesson that holding steady is often the best response for investors to crashing prices, rather than trying to time the market. The fast-forward movements of this year just mean sticking to that strategy paid off much more quickly this time around.

“It’s almost universally the case that you do not want to sell into a panic,” said Yung-Yu Ma, chief investment strategist at BMO Wealth Management. “That is something that investors still have a hard time realizing in a moment where it seems like there’s every reason to sell. But that principle is definitely a lesson to be taken away.”

Of course, the temptation to sell was tough to ignore when so much confusion was crashing through the market this year and prices were zooming at what seemed 10 or 100 times normal speed. Consider:

— Between Feb. 19 and March 23, the S&P 500 plunged nearly 34% as panic over the economic damage the pandemic could cause swept through markets . That’s close to the average drop of 39.4% for the 14 bear markets that have struck since 1929. But the average bear market lasted nearly 20 months. This one ran its course in a little more than 20 trading days and was the fastest on record, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.