Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable argues that we should never ignore the possibility or importance of rare, unpredictable events.
Here are excerpts of his interview with McKinsey Quarterly:
The Quarterly: For people who haven’t read The Black Swan, can you quickly summarize what they should know to understand your point of view on recent events in global financial markets?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Before Europeans discovered Australia, we had no reason to believe that swans could be any other color but white. But they discovered Australia, saw black swans, and revised their beliefs. My idea in The Black Swan is to make people think of the unknown and of the potency of the unknown, particularly a certain class of events that you can’t imagine but can cost you a lot: rare but high-impact events.
So my black swan doesn’t have feathers. My black swan is an event with three properties. Number one, its probability is low, based on past knowledge. Two, although its probability is low, when it happens it has a massive impact. And three, people don’t see it coming before the fact, but after the fact, everybody saw it coming. So it’s prospectively unpredictable but retrospectively predictable.
Now that we’re in this financial crisis, for example, everybody saw it coming. But did they own bank stocks? Yes, they did. In other words, they say that they saw it coming because they had some thoughts in the shower about this possibility—not because they truly took measures to protect themselves from it.
Now, a black swan can be a negative event like a banking crisis. It also can be positive: inventing new technology, making new discoveries, meeting your mate, writing a best seller, or developing a cure for cancer, baldness, or bad breath. In The Black Swan, I say that in the historical and socioeconomic domain, black swans are everything. If you ignore black swans, you’ve got nothing. And I showed that the computer, the Internet, and the laser—three recent technological black swans—came out of nowhere. We didn’t know what they were, and when we had them right before our eyes we didn’t know what to do with them. The Internet was not built as something to help people communicate in chat rooms; it was a military application and it evolved.
So these things have a life of their own. You cannot predict a black swan. We also have some psychological blindness to black swans. We don’t understand them, because, genetically, we did not evolve in an environment where there were a lot of black swans. It’s not part of our intuition.
The Quarterly: Say a little more about the relationship between black swans and the global financial crisis.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: I warned in The Black Swan against some classes of risk people don’t understand and against the tools used by risk managers—tools that could not fully capture the properties of the world in which we live. The financial crisis took place because people took a lot of hidden risks, which meant that a small blip could have massive consequences.
In fact, I tried in The Black Swan to turn a lot of black swans white! That’s why I kept going on and on against financial theories, financial-risk managers, and people who do quantitative finance. I warned that they were dangerous to society.
The Quarterly: What are your concerns with statistics and portfolio theory?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The field of statistics is based on something called the law of large numbers: as you increase your sample size, no single observation is going to hurt you. Sometimes that works. But the rules are based on classes of distribution that don’t always hold in our world.
All statistics come from games. But our world doesn’t resemble games. We don’t have dice that can deliver. Instead of dice with one through six, the real world can have one through five—and then a trillion. The real world can do that. In the 1920s, the German mark went from three marks to a dollar to three trillion to a dollar in no time.
That’s why portfolio theory simply doesn’t work. It uses metrics like variance to describe risk, while most real risk comes from a single observation, so variance is a volatility that doesn’t really describe the risk. It’s very foolish to use variance.
The Quarterly: What would your ideas look like in practice for, say, a manufacturer?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: If risk doesn’t cost you a lot, take all the risk you can. That’s how economic growth is generated. Don’t fear being aggressive if that only costs you a little. Do more trial and error. Learn to fail with pride, comfort, and pleasure.
But try to have less downside exposure by building more slack into your system through redundancy, more insurance, more cash, and less leverage. Imagine a shock. What will happen if there’s a shock? How many months could you keep operating?
The problem is, Wall Street penalizes companies that have more of this kind of insurance, because they are going to lag behind companies that don’t take on the expense. I see this in my investment business. But you know what? The people who insured against catastrophes are still standing today. The other people are bust. So don’t fear overinsurance for your downside, even if you lag behind as a result.
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When commentators invoke 1929, I am dubious. According to most historians and economists, that depression had more to do with overlarge factory inventories, a stock-market crash, and Germany’s inability to pay back war debts, which then led to continuing strain on British gold reserves. None of those factors is really an issue now. Contemporary industries have very sensitive controls for trimming production as consumption declines; our current stock-market dip followed bank problems that emerged more than a year ago; and there are no serious international problems with gold reserves, simply because banks no longer peg their lending to them.
In fact, the current economic woes look a lot like what my 96-year-old grandmother still calls “the real Great Depression.” She pinched pennies in the 1930s, but she says that times were not nearly so bad as the depression her grandparents went through. That crash came in 1873 and lasted more than four years. It looks much more like our current crisis.
The problems had emerged around 1870, starting in Europe. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, formed in 1867, in the states unified by Prussia into the German empire, and in France, the emperors supported a flowering of new lending institutions that issued mortgages for municipal and residential construction, especially in the capitals of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Mortgages were easier to obtain than before, and a building boom commenced. Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the three cities today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period.
But the economic fundamentals were shaky. Wheat exporters from Russia and Central Europe faced a new international competitor who drastically undersold them. The 19th-century version of containers manufactured in China and bound for Wal-Mart consisted of produce from farmers in the American Midwest. They used grain elevators, conveyer belts, and massive steam ships to export trainloads of wheat to abroad. Britain, the biggest importer of wheat, shifted to the cheap stuff quite suddenly around 1871. By 1872 kerosene and manufactured food were rocketing out of America’s heartland, undermining rapeseed, flour, and beef prices. The crash came in Central Europe in May 1873, as it became clear that the region’s assumptions about continual economic growth were too optimistic. Europeans faced what they came to call the American Commercial Invasion. A new industrial superpower had arrived, one whose low costs threatened European trade and a European way of life.
As continental banks tumbled, British banks held back their capital, unsure of which institutions were most involved in the mortgage crisis. The cost to borrow money from another bank — the interbank lending rate — reached impossibly high rates. This banking crisis hit the United States in the fall of 1873. Railroad companies tumbled first. They had crafted complex financial instruments that promised a fixed return, though few understood the underlying object that was guaranteed to investors in case of default. (Answer: nothing). The bonds had sold well at first, but they had tumbled after 1871 as investors began to doubt their value, prices weakened, and many railroads took on short-term bank loans to continue laying track. Then, as short-term lending rates skyrocketed across the Atlantic in 1873, the railroads were in trouble. When the railroad financier Jay Cooke proved unable to pay off his debts, the stock market crashed in September, closing hundreds of banks over the next three years. The panic continued for more than four years in the United States and for nearly six years in Europe.
The long-term effects of the Panic of 1873 were perverse. For the largest manufacturing companies in the United States — those with guaranteed contracts and the ability to make rebate deals with the railroads — the Panic years were golden. Andrew Carnegie, Cyrus McCormick, and John D. Rockefeller had enough capital reserves to finance their own continuing growth. For smaller industrial firms that relied on seasonal demand and outside capital, the situation was dire. As capital reserves dried up, so did their industries. Carnegie and Rockefeller bought out their competitors at fire-sale prices. The Gilded Age in the United States, as far as industrial concentration was concerned, had begun.
As the panic deepened, ordinary Americans suffered terribly…
Interesting lessons as banks start to collapse around us and rescue plans and bailouts are rife. Nelson goes on:
The echoes of the past in the current problems with residential mortgages trouble me. Loans after about 2001 were issued to first-time homebuyers who signed up for adjustablerate mortgages they could likely never pay off, even in the best of times. Real-estate speculators, hoping to flip properties, overextended themselves, assuming that home prices would keep climbing. Those debts were wrapped in complex securities that mortgage companies and other entrepreneurial banks then sold to other banks; concerned about the stability of those securities, banks then bought a kind of insurance policy called a credit-derivative swap, which risk managers imagined would protect their investments. More than two million foreclosure filings — default notices, auction-sale notices, and bank repossessions — were reported in 2007. By then trillions of dollars were already invested in this credit-derivative market. Were those new financial instruments resilient enough to cover all the risk? (Answer: no.) As in 1873, a complex financial pyramid rested on a pinhead. Banks are hoarding cash. Banks that hoard cash do not make short-term loans. Businesses large and small now face a potential dearth of short-term credit to buy raw materials, ship their products, and keep goods on shelves.
If there are lessons from 1873, they are different from those of 1929. Most important, when banks fall on Wall Street, they stop all the traffic on Main Street — for a very long time. The protracted reconstruction of banks in the United States and Europe created widespread unemployment. Unions (previously illegal in much of the world) flourished but were then destroyed by corporate institutions that learned to operate on the edge of the law. In Europe, politicians found their scapegoats in Jews, on the fringes of the economy. (Americans, on the other hand, mostly blamed themselves; many began to embrace what would later be called fundamentalist religion.)
The post-panic winners, even after the bailout, might be those firms — financial and otherwise — that have substantial cash reserves. A widespread consolidation of industries may be on the horizon, along with a nationalistic response of high tariff barriers, a decline in international trade, and scapegoating of immigrant competitors for scarce jobs. The failure in July of the World Trade Organization talks begun in Doha seven years ago suggests a new wave of protectionism may be on the way.
In the end, the Panic of 1873 demonstrated that the center of gravity for the world’s credit had shifted west — from Central Europe toward the United States. The current panic suggests a further shift — from the United States to China and India…
Stephen Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley’s Asian arm says the US economy is headed towards recession – and Asia should be concerned.
“What is interesting, and potentially disturbing, is that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to think this is a big deal any more. There is a view that that the world is somehow decoupled from the American growth engine. I think that view will turn out to be dead wrong, and this is a global event with consequences for Asia and Australia,” he said.
Roach said the US was the world’s biggest consumer economy at US$9.5 trillion, compared to China at US$1 trillion and India at US$650 billion.
He said the key issue for economies outside the US was to determine how much internal demand of their own did they have to offset any shortfall from US consumers.
“My conclusion is: not nearly as much as you would like.” He said growth in Asia was vigorous but was export-led, and the end game of the Asian growth machine was directed at US consumers.
The new consumers in China and India would not be able to offset falls in US consumption.
The Federal Reserve is widely expected to cut interest rates again this week.
This troubling little film by Alfonso “Children of Men” Cuarón and Naomi Klein, and directed by Jonás Cuarón, brings the stark realities of disaster capitalism, or what Klein calls The Shock Doctrine.
Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration outsources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater.
After the tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts.
New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public schools will never be reopened. Instead, following Friedman’s suggestion, the government replaced the school system with privately run charter schools.