The Black Swan Sequester

The end of crisis culture in the markets doesn't mean we should cease being vigilant about risks, but it is a needed and healthy shift

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Reuters

Everyday, we are treated to a new peril: Today we have sequestration, a word not much in anyone's lexicon until recently. The mandated cuts to the federal budget, $85 billion by last count, will further stunt anemic economic growth, or so economists and the Congressional Budget Office guesstimate. The prognostications surrounding the sequester have been grim, with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough warning of a "devastating list of horribles," ranging from severe travel snafus to the end of vital education programs.

In the political media, in Washington, and in the defense industry (which will see especially draconian cuts), all of this is Big News. But after months of buildup, the end-of-days drama is ending with a resounding thud. The meh reaction of financial markets of late is particularly telling (the Dow flirted with its all-time high this week). Markets are mood rings, and the mood now is one of boredom and fatigue. Even the New York Times led page 1 not with the sequester but with a studied picture of a nun saying goodbye to the retiring pope.

This is a good thing. Since the housing market imploded six years ago, we've been suffering from black swan fever. When Nicholas Taleb penned his passionate polemic about the inability of financial markets to allow for unanticipated and rare events ("black swans"), he did us all a great service in highlighting the narrow-mindedness that can have dire consequences.

Then the pendulum swung too far. Instead of complacency about rare, destabilizing events, the markets, the media and the politicians developed a fixation: Find the next black swan. That has led to a belief that any sign of stability, any indication that the worst may have passed is simply a false dawn. Luckily, that skittishness has passed.

Yes, financial markets have been in a holding pattern of late. But if what is happening now had happened in the past few years, the markets would have been roiling. Flat markets now are a good sign.

This week alone, Italy's elections did not go as many outside of Italy would have hoped, but the markets shrugged. Instead of ushering in a center-left coalition committed to austerity and labor market reform, there was an indecisive result whose main winner was a professional comic whose message is throw-the-bums-out. Later in the week, the official Italian unemployment figure was announced as close to 12 percent and economic activity contracted more than expected.

With the week bookended by renewed concerns about the eurozone and the sequester, you would have thought markets would easily slip into a panic that has been all too familiar of late. They have not.

In fact, during the past three years of rolling crises, equities and bonds have been on a quiet tear. Since May of 2010, the S&P 500 is up nearly 40 percent, and there has been a boom market in bonds as yields have fallen globally. That has not helped people who put their retirement income in government bonds or money markets, at least not directly, but it still demonstrates the disconnect between the climate of fear that has suffused our economy and political life and the relatively stable bull market that has been chugging along at the same time.

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Zachary Karabell is Head of Global Strategy at Envestnet, a financial services firm, and author of The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World. More

At River Twice Research, Karabell analyzes economic and political trends. He is also a senior advisor for Business for Social Responsibility. Previously, he was executive vice president, head of marketing and chief economist at Fred Alger Management, a New York-based investment firm, and president of Fred Alger and Company, as well as portfolio manager of the China-U.S. Growth Fund, which won a five-star designation from Morningstar. He was also executive vice president of Alger's Spectra Funds, which launched the $30 million Spectra Green Fund based on the idea that profit and sustainability are linked. Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., he is the author of several books, including Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It (2009), The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, and Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence (2007), which examined the forgotten legacy of peace among the three faiths. In 2003, the World Economic Forum designated Karabell a "Global Leader for Tomorrow." He sits on the board of the World Policy Institute and the New America Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a regular commentator on national news programs, such as CNBC and CNN, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs.

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