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Three Black Swans

“The world in which we live has an increasing number of feedback loops, causing events to be the cause of more events (say, people buy a book because other people bought it), thus generating snowballs and arbitrary and unpredictable planet-wide winner-take-all effects.”

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

“What do you do?” is a common question Americans ask people they have just met. Some people outside the US consider this rude – as if our jobs define who we are. Not true, of course, but we still feel obliged to answer the question.

My work involves so many different things that it isn’t easy to describe. My usual quick answer is that I’m a writer. My readers might say instead: “He tells people what could go wrong.” I like to think of myself as an optimist, and I do often write about my generally optimistic view of the future, but that optimism doesn’t often extend to the performance of governments and central banks. Frankly, we all face economic and financial risks, and we all need to prepare for them. Knowing the risks is the first step toward preparing.

Exactly 10 years ago we were months way from a world-shaking financial crisis. By late 2006 we had an inverted yield curve steep and persistent enough to be a high-probability indicator of recession 12 months later. So in late 2006 I was writing about the probability that we would have a recession in 2007. I was also writing about the heavy leverage in the banking system, the ridiculous level of high-yield offerings, the terms and potential turmoil in the bond and banking markets, and the crisis brewing in the subprime market. I wish I had had the money then that a few friends did to massively leverage a short position on the subprime market. I estimated at that time that the losses would be $400 billion at a minimum, whereupon a whole lot of readers and fellow analysts told me I was just way too bearish.

Turned out the losses topped well over $2 trillion and triggered the financial crisis and Great Recession. Conditions in the financial markets needed only a spark from the subprime crisis to start a firestorm all over the world. Plenty of things were waiting to go wrong, and it seemed like they all did at the same time. Governments and central bankers scrambled hard to quench the inferno. Looking back, I wish they had done some things differently, but in the heat of battle – a battle these particular people had never faced before, with more going wrong every day – it was hard to be philosophically pure.

(Sidebar: I think the Fed’s true mistakes were QE2, QE3, and missing their chance to start raising rates in 2013. By then, they had time to more carefully consider those decisions.)

We don’t have an inverted yield curve now, so the only truly reliable predictor of recessions in the US is not sounding that warning. But when the central bank artificially holds down short-term rates, it is difficult if not almost impossible for the yield curve to invert.

We have effectively suppressed that warning signal, but I am laser focused on factors that could readily trigger a global recession, resulting in another global financial crisis. All is not well in the markets. Yes, we see stock benchmarks pushing to new highs and bond yields at record lows. Inflation benchmarks are stable. Unemployment is low and going lower. GDP growth is slow, but it’s still growth. All that says we shouldn’t worry. Perversely, the signs that we shouldn’t worry are also reasons why we should.

This is a classic Minsky teaching moment: Stability breeds instability.

I know the bullish arguments for why we can’t have another crisis. Banks are better capitalized now. Regulators are watching more intently. Bondholders are on notice not to expect more bailouts. All that’s true.

On the other hand, today’s global megabanks are much larger than their 2008 versions were, and they are more interconnected. Most Americans – the 80% I’ve called the Unprotected – are still licking their wounds from the last battle. Many are in worse shape now than in 2008. Our crisis-fighting reserves are low.

European banks are still highly leveraged. The shadow banking system in China has grown to scary proportions.

Globalization has proceeded apace since 2008, and the world is even more interconnected now. Problems in faraway markets can quickly become problems close to home. And that’s without a global trade war.

I am concerned that another major crisis will ensue by the end of 2018 – though it is possible that a salutary combination of events, aided by complacency, could let us muddle through for another few years. But there is another recession in our future (there is always another recession), and it’s going to be at least as bad as the last one was, in terms of the global pain it causes. The recovery is going to take much longer than the current one has, because our massive debt build-up is a huge drag on growth. I hope I’m wrong. But I would rather write these words now and risk eating them in my 2020 year-end letter than leave you unwarned and unprepared.

Because I’m traveling this week, this letter will be just a few appetizers –black swan hot wings, black swan meatballs in orange sauce, teriyaki swan skewers, and the like – to whet your appetite and help you anticipate what’s coming.

Seriously speaking, could the three scenarios we discuss below turn out be fateful black swans? Yes. But remember this: A harmless white swan can look black in the right lighting conditions. Sometimes that’s all it takes to start a panic.

Black Swan #1: Yellen Overshoots

It is increasingly evident, at least to me, that the US economy is not taking off like the rocket some predicted after the election. President Trump and the Republicans haven’t been able to pass any of the fiscal stimulus measures we hoped to see. Banks and energy companies are getting some regulatory relief, and that helps; but it’s a far cry from the sweeping healthcare reform, tax cuts, and infrastructure spending we were promised. Though serious, major tax reform could postpone a US recession to well beyond 2020, what we are going to get instead is tinkering around the edges.

On the bright side, unemployment has fallen further, and discouraged workers are re-entering the labor force. But consumer spending is still weak, so people may be less...