The divergent tales of Syria and Lebanon demonstrate that the best early warning signs of instability are found not in historical data but in underlying structural properties. Past experience can be extremely effective when it comes to detecting risks of cancer, crime, and earthquakes. But it is a bad bellwether of complex political and economic events, particularly so-called tail risks—events, such as coups and financial crises, that are highly unlikely but enormously consequential. For those, the evidence of risk comes too late to do anything about it, and a more sophisticated approach is required. ... Thus, instead of trying in vain to predict such “Black Swan” events, it’s much more fruitful to focus on how systems can handle disorder—in other words, to study how fragile they are. Although one cannot predict what events will befall a country, one can predict how events will affect a country. Some political systems can sustain an extraordinary amount of stress, while others fall apart at the onset of the slightest trouble. The good news is that it’s possible to tell which are which by relying on the theory of fragility. ... The first marker of a fragile state is a concentrated decision-making system. On its face, centralization seems to make governments more efficient and thus more stable. But that stability is an illusion. Apart from in the military—the only sector that needs to be unified into a single structure—centralization contributes to fragility. ... The second soft spot is the absence of economic diversity. Economic concentration can be even more harmful than political centralization. Economists since David Ricardo have touted the gains in efficiency to be had if countries specialize in the sectors in which they hold a comparative advantage. But specialization makes a state more vulnerable in the face of random events. ... The third source of fragility is also economic in nature: being highly indebted and highly leveraged. Debt is perhaps the single most critical source of fragility. It makes an entity more sensitive to shortfalls in revenue, and all the more so as those shortfalls accelerate. ... The fourth source of fragility is a lack of political variability. Contrary to conventional wisdom, genuinely stable countries experience moderate political changes, continually switching governments and reversing their political orientations. ... The fifth marker of fragility takes the proposition that there is no stability without volatility a step further: it is the lack of a record of surviving big shocks. States that have experienced a worst-case scenario in the recent past (say, around the previous two decades) and recovered from it are likely to be more stable than those that haven’t.
Today we have the highest living standards in human history that co-exist with an ability to destroy our planet ecologically and ourselves through nuclear war. We are in the greatest period of stability with the largest probabilistic tail risk ever. The majority of Americans have lived their entire lives without ever experiencing a direct war and this is, by all accounts, rare in the history of humankind. Does this mean we are safe from the risk of devastating conflict on our own soil? ... Peace has a dark side. Peace can exist due to hidden conflict in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. ... Global Capitalism is trapped in its own Prisoner’s Dilemma; forty four years after the end of the Bretton Woods System global central banks have manipulated the cost of risk in a competition of devaluation leading to a dangerous build up in debt and leverage, lower risk premiums, income disparity, and greater probability of tail events on both sides of the return distribution. Truth is being suppressed by the tools of money. Market behavior has now fully adapted to the expectation of pre-emptive central bank action to crisis creating a dangerous self-reflexivity and moral hazard. Volatility markets are warped in this new reality routinely exhibiting schizophrenic behavior. The tremendous growth of the short volatility complex across all assets, combined with self-reflexive investment strategies, are creating a dangerous ‘shadow convexity’ that will fuel the next hyper-crash. Central banks in the US, Europe, Japan, and China now own substantial portions of their own bond or equity markets. We are nearing the end of a thirty year “monetary super-cycle” that created a “debt super-cycle”, a giant tower of babel in the capitalist system. As markets now fully price the expectation of central bank control we are now only one voltage switch away from the razors edge of risk. Do not fool yourself - peace is not the absence of conflict – peace can exist on the very edge of volatility. ... Since 2012, the Federal Reserve have been engaged in a pre-emptive war against financial risk, and other central banks are forced to follow suit in a self-reinforcing cycle of devaluation and a mad game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. This unofficial, but clearly observable policy has the unintended consequence of socializing risk for private gain and introduces deep ‘shadow’ risks in the global economy. ... At this stage, absent continuous intervention, a large deflationary crash in the global economy is inevitable. The greatest risk is that if central banks continue a policy of competitive devaluation and hyper-asset bubbles the end result will be an even more devastating crash, followed by sovereign defaults, and then class warfare. The next Lehman brothers will be a country. The real ‘shadow convexity’ will not come from markets but political unrest or war. ... History shows us that economic recovery from a depression has never been successfully engineered without major debt reduction, devaluation, default, hyperinflation, political revolution, or world war.
In our view, successfully divining the trajectory of markets today has a great deal to do with properly separating the bountiful amounts of information and data we have access to into that which is genuinely useful and that which serves to distract. As a case in point, while we have indeed weighed in on this debate ourselves, the endless discussions about the precise timing of Federal Reserve policy rate lift-off receive far too much attention from investors and the media. Indeed, we think less of a focus on transitory issue like this, and more attention paid to longer-term market influences such as demographic trends and technological change can go some distance toward improving an investment process longer-term. To that end, in this edition of our market outlook we briefly examine a set of influences on markets that we think hold meaningful importance longer-term (demographics, technology, policy evolution and risk, liquidity, and valuation), while at the same time dispelling a set of assertions that we believe are either over-emphasized or mistaken. ... The days of a simple risk-on/risk-off dynamic, depending on whether policy stimulus was waxing or waning, are likely behind us. ... the time may finally have come when carry-focused investments may now be priced as attractively as beta (or down-the-capital-stack) instruments, so investors can selectively search for opportunities there. As described above, though, there are some tail risks in markets, so care is still required. And, perhaps most importantly, investors would do well to tune out the endless streams of noise generated by financial market commentators and focus on the secular themes likely to both endure and help create long-term value.
The global catastrophic risks in this report can be divided into two categories. Some are ongoing and could potentially occur in any given year. Others are emerging and may be very unlikely today but will become significantly more likely in the coming decades. The most significant ongoing risks are natural pandemics and nuclear war, whereas the most significant emerging risks are catastrophic climate change and risks stemming from emerging technologies. Even where risks remain in the future, there are things we can do today to address them. ... The relative likelihood and urgency of the different risks matters when deciding how to respond. Even though the level of uncertainty is extreme, rational action requires explicit assessments of how much attention the different risks deserve, and how likely they are. The views of the authors on these vexed questions, based on our reading of the scientific evidence, are summarised in the following table. More information can be found in the full version of this report.