Off the charts: “black swan” ahead?

“Black swans” are the anti-gravity of predictive analytics. These events are so far off the charts that we dismiss the possibility out of hand. But when one occurs, it’s a doozy.

The Panic of ’08 may lead us straight into one of these, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness among other works. He and his mentor, mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, told NewsHour’s Paul Solman last week that what’s coming might make the Great Depression and the Long Depression of the 1870s seem small.

But before you lose sleep, mind this caveat: Taleb himself calls predictions “bullshit.” In a talk he gave in 2006 he said, “We’re suckers for anyone who talk to us about the future.” (Listen here.)

He’s getting lots of attention these days. Taleb foresaw this financial crisis. Lately, he has made money for investment clients based on that prescient gloom. Others saw it coming, too. A banker told me in 2003 when I asked for his outlook, “Oh, pal! You’re talkin’ to Darth Vader,” and he sketched the scenario that began unfolding last year.

It’s all about turbulence, Taleb theorizes. Our system is “over-optimized” and has too little slack. It can’t absorb much shock. Taleb says that’s how a small shortage of oil sent the per-barrel price from $25 to $150. It’s also how a small mistake in one big bank sends shivers through other banks.

Perhaps it’s also how a dollar bill on a Wall Street trading floor—imagined last week by The Onion—caused a surge of optimism.

The Onion’s jokes often come true, but optimism is out for now. Today the world feels like it did after September 11, when we assumed the terrorists had another one coming at us. Or after the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco. I had grown up in the area and had felt lots of quakes, but a year my stomach clenched whenever a heavy truck rumbled by.

If there’s any comfort, it might be in what the ever-entertaining Ed Brown said once in a talk at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He told about a middle-aged man he’d seen at the baths, submerged in the hottest water. A few kids watched him as he encouraged them to try it. The man said, “Don’t resist the heat. You just kind of let it enter you.” Ignore the voice in your head that screams at the unknown.

While there’s time, read Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. I haven’t yet read The Black Swan, but I’ve heard it’s also very interesting. Available now.

Oh, and take off your scary mask when you walk through any financial district on Halloween.

2 Responses to Off the charts: “black swan” ahead?

  1. When Benoit Mandelbrot is having sleepless nights, it *does* make you wonder if the latest happy uptick in response to the most recent Bernanke rate cut is pure delusion.

    While we could all benefit from some Buddhist calm, that Ed Brown story reminds me of the classic consulting anecdote of “If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it jumps out immediately. But if you put that frog into a cool pot of water and turn up the heat slowly, it never jumps out. It just ends up cooked.”
    If you look at the DJIA performance over the last 12 months, it looks like someone’s been slowly turning up the heat. . .

  2. Yes, the Ed Brown story is something like that. It’s comfort, not cure. But for anyone who’s afraid to jump, the only option is to make the pot into a nice, hot bath.

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