Another critical factor is the health of the banking system. One measure to watch is banks’ so-called net worth, or the difference between how much they owe and the value of their assets. Rebuilding the banking system’s net worth will be monumentally difficult. “On average, this process takes about six years,” says Joseph Mason, a banking professor at Louisiana State University who has studied past banking crises. So far, little has been accomplished — a big reason the stock market hasn’t gotten up from its knees.
A more probable outcome is the one drawn from the narrow history of bear markets that grew out of financial crises. In it, the bear scenario continues to play out until the bull takes over, with more debt busts and government trial and error until things get set right again. That could mean two more years of bouncing around and then another six or so before the Dow is back above 14,000. Not long ago, such an outcome would have seemed unimaginably bleak. Given the other possibilities, it doesn’t seem so bad now.