Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

The black swan sequester

Zachary Karabell
Mar 1, 2013 21:36 UTC

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.

Another ill-advised rush towards Euro-pessimism

Zachary Karabell
Feb 8, 2013 18:22 UTC

After a pleasant lull over the past six months, panic over the fate of Europe has flared once again. Just weeks ago the elites of Davos exuded confidence that the crisis had passed; the events of the past weeks showed how ephemeral such certainty can be.

But the easy resumption of dark prognostications is just that: easy. The siren call of Euro-pessimism should be ignored. It was wrong in 2010, and it will be wrong now. Europe faces hard years with no clear path, but that is not the same as dissolution and chaos.

So what changed? The British government of David Cameron spoke with atypical candor about the possibility of Great Britain leaving the Union. Scandals rocked the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and Rajoy himself was accused of accepting illegal payments. In Italy, one of the larger banks, Monte dei Paschi, revealed that it had lost close to $1 billion in hidden derivative transactions. More worrisome, looming parliamentary elections that have seen the incredible (for anyone outside of Italy) resurrection of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has managed to surge in the polls even while on trial for paying an underage woman for sex. The prospect of Berlusconi’s return coupled with a crippled Spanish government have raised the prospect that neither country will continue their long march to structural economic reform.

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