Black Swans of August

Throughout history, big economic and political shocks have often occurred in August, when leaders had gone on vacation in the belief that world affairs were quiet. Examples of geopolitical jolts that came in August include the outbreak of World War I, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the Berlin Wall in 1961. Subsequent examples of economic and other surprises in August have included the Nixon shock of 1971 (when the American president enacted wage-price controls, took the dollar off gold, and imposed trade controls), 1982 eruption in Mexico of the international debt crisis, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the 1991 Soviet coup, 1992 crisis in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and US subprime mortgage crisis of 2007. Many of these shocks constituted events that had previously not even appeared on most radar screens. They were considered unthinkable.

The phrase “black swans” has come to be used to mean a very unlikely event of this sort. Managers of Long Term Capital Management in 1998 or of most major banks in 2008 have suggested that they could not be expected to have allowed for a financial collapse such as the one that followed the default of Russia or the one that followed the bursting of the US housing bubble, because it was a “7-standard deviation event,” that is, an event of inconceivably tiny probability…in the realm of the probability that two major meteors hit the earth at the same time. This is nonsense. If the statistical model says the probability of a financial crisis is that low, it is the model that is wrong. This is like the case when “hundred-year floods” turn up every few years.

A bit more enlightened are people who talk about Knightian uncertainty or “unknown unknowns.” Ignorance with humility is better than ignorance without it. A still better interpretation is that statistical distributions have “fat tails,” in technical terms. But it would be nice to get beyond the Jurassic Park lesson (”don’t be surprised if things go wrong”), to be able to say intelligent things about what causes tail events.

What does “black swan” really mean? In my view, it should refer to an event that is considered virtually impossible by those whose frame of reference is limited in time span and geographical area, but that is well within the probability distribution for those whose data set includes other countries besides their own and other decades or centuries.