This paper proposes a framework to detect financial crises, pinpoint the end of a crisis in stock markets and support investment decision-making processes. This proposal is based on a hidden Markov model (HMM) and allows for a specific focus on conditional mean returns. By analysing weekly changes in the US stock market indexes over a period of 20 years, this study obtains an accurate detection of stable and turmoil periods and a probabilistic measure of switching between different stock market conditions. The results contribute to the discussion of the capabilities of Markov-switching models of analysing stock market behaviour. In particular, we find evidence that HMM outperforms threshold GARCH model with Student-t innovations both in-sample and out-of-sample, giving financial operators some appealing investment strategies. © 2013 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.