More Black Swans?

I have argued that the best way to think of “black swan” events is as developments that, even though low-probability, can in fact be contemplated ahead of time. Even if they are the sort of thing that has never happened before within an analyst’s memory, similar things may have happened before in the distant past or in other countries.

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What current possible shocks have probabilities that, even if fairly low, are high enough to warrant thinking about now? Some have been discussed ad infinitum, others hardly at all.

  • Most widely discussed is the danger of a break-up of the euro. Considered unthinkable a short time ago, the probability that one or more euro members will drop out is now well above 50%. Currency unions have disintegrated before.
  • Another is the possibility of a hard landing in China, analogous to the crisis that hit Korea and other East Asian markets in 1997.
  • An oil crisis in the Mideast is the classic black swan event. Eachone catches us by surprise: 1956, 1973, 1979, and 1990 (among others). Oil prices can rise for lots of reasons, not just crises in the Mideast, and have done so in recent years. But the most likely crisis scenarios currently stem from either military conflict with Iran or instability in some Arab government. The threatened loss of supply to world markets typically shows up as a sharp increase in demand for oil inventories and thus in prices.
  • The most worrisome financial threat is a crash of currently over-priced bond markets. In theory such a crash could be precipitated by inflation (particularly commodity-induced inflation as in 1973 or 1979). But this seems unlikely. More likely triggers are (i) a breakdown in the eurozone or (ii) political dysfunction in Washington. A default in Greece or some other Mediterranean country could trigger a global debt crisis any time. The evidence of extreme dysfunction in US politics is already there for all to see, in the attempts by some politicians to repeat the macroeconomic policy mistakes of 1937 and in the debt-ceiling show-down of August 2011 (which led S&P to downgrade US government credit rating from AAA to AA). The obvious crunch date comes after the American election, as the “fiscal cliff” approaches in the last two months of this year. In theory, fears of what will happen January 1 should lead investors to start dumping bonds now. But it is still considered a sign of sophistication in financial markets to opine that, precisely because the consequences of going over the cliff would be so bad, the politicians will again find a last-minute way to avoid it. In truth, the fact that we haven’t gone over the cliff before does not necessarily mean we won’t this time. Perhaps observers think that a clear result in the election, one way or the other, would help settle things. A true black swan in the mix would be a repeat in November of the disputed 2000 presidential election; there has been no reform in the meantime to assure people that their votes will be counted or that a disputed outcome would be resolved by independent institutions rather than by interested political appointees.
  • Scariest on the list is a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction. When politicians have used the specter of a September 11 repeat to scare the American public into supporting unhelpful policy responses, the mistake has been in the unhelpful policy responses, not in the “scare” part. There is long-standing gap between the probability of a nuclear event as perceived by terrorism experts and the probability as perceived by the public. Admittedly the probability is lower now that Osama bin Laden is dead.
  • Last on this list is an unprecedented climate disaster. Environmentalists sometimes underestimate the benefits of technological and economic progress when they reason that a finite supply of resources must of necessity be exhausted eventually. But the disbelievers are just as faulty in their reasoning that because a global climate disaster has not happened in the past it can’t happen in the future.;

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