The Oil-Drenched Black Swan, Part 3: Multiple Risks, Multiple Unknowns   (December 3, 2014)

It is these unforeseeable and uncontrollable consequences that are poised to wreak havoc on the global financial system.

Here's the thing about risk: it bursts out of whatever is deemed "safe." It wasn't accidental that the Global Financial Meltdown originated in home mortgages; it was the perceived safety of the mortgage market that attracted all the speculative debt and leverage.

The authorities (those few who weren't bribed to look the other way) were caught off-guard by this explosion of risk in a presumably "safe" market, but this was entirely predictable: this is the nature of systemic risk.

Since 2009, central state/bank authorities have backstopped the private banking sector and the sovereign debt market with everything they've got. The Federal Reserve alone threw something on the order of $23 trillion in guarantees, loans and backstops at the private banking sector, and the other central banks have thrown trillions of yuan, yen and euros to shore up the banking sector and sovereign debt.

They did this because they identified the banking sector and sovereign debt as the sources of systemic risk. Now that they've effectively shored up these two risk-laden sectors with the full weight of the central state and bank, they presume the systemic risk has been eradicated.

They could not be more wrong. As I often note, risk cannot be disappeared, it can only be masked or transferred. The systemic risk will not manifest in the heavily protected banking sector or the sovereign debt market--risk will break out of sectors that are considered 'safe"--like oil.

Yesterday, I described how The Financialization of Oil has followed much the same path as the financialization of home mortgages in the 2000s: a "safe" sector has been piled high with highly profitable and highly risky debt and leverage.

Once the narrow base of collateral shrinks (as it has in oil), the inverted pyramid of debt and leverage collapses, distributing losses that then trigger defaults as the dominoes fall.

What are the risks that result from the drop in oil prices? We can identify four right off the top:

1. Financial market turmoil. Right now, the extent of the losses created by oil's sharp decline have yet to become visible. Everyone holding the losses is scrambling to hide them and sell positions to limit the losses. The full consequences of losses and defaults will only become public in the weeks and months ahead.

Those who think the losses are confined to the oil patch and lenders are mistaken. How many hedge funds and pension/mutual funds own oil stocks or oil-related bonds, loans and instruments?

2. Currency market turmoil. Venezuela is the leading candidate for currency collapse resulting from the drop in oil prices. Russia's currency (ruble) is already in a free-fall, and though some may blame Western sanctions, the real driver is the collapse in oil revenues.

3. Geopolitical conflicts. History suggests that declining oil revenues tend to spark geopolitical conflicts as those losing revenue seek scapegoats in other oil exporters who refuse to cut production to support higher prices.

There are a host of other reasons for geopolitical conflicts to arise out of oil's price decline. Stronger rivals may seek to exploit the weakened state of oil-exporting competitors. Oil exporters might seek to trim supply by disrupting rivals' production via fomenting domestic unrest. The temptation to invade and conquer rises in parallel with desperation.

4. The unknown unknowns and the rising odds of miscalculation. As I noted in The Oil-Drenched Black Swan, Part 1, the The Smith Uncertainty Principle expresses the multiple ways risk can manifest:

"Every sustained action has more than one consequence. Some consequences will appear positive for a time before revealing their destructive nature. Some will be foreseeable, some will not. Some will be controllable, some will not. Those that are unforeseen and uncontrollable will trigger waves of other unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences."

The highlighted passage echoes the impact of Black Swans and Donald Rumsfeld's famous encapsulation of the risks implicit in the unknown:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones."

Psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek noted that there is a fourth category, the unknown known: what we know that we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know.

I think this is an ontological (intrinsic) source of risk: we know our activities and choices are piling up risk, but we refuse to acknowledge this because we do not want to deal with the consequences of all that risk accumulating.

This is the root of Chuck Prince's famous line about dancing (i.e. pursuing reckless financial speculations) as long as the music is playing ("As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance."): everyone engaged in speculation knows the risks are piling up, but to avoid having to exit the game, they deny knowledge of the risks that are visibly piling up.

Then when the house of cards predictably collapses, they can plead ignorance.

The Power of Black Swans lie in the unanticipated consequences of the unknown unknowns. Some of the consequences of lower oil prices are known, but some are unknown. It is these unforeseeable and uncontrollable consequences that are poised to wreak havoc on the global financial system.

Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy (Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
go to Kindle edition
Are you like me?
Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.

And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.

You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.

Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.

So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.

I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.

Test drive the first section and see for yourself.     Kindle, $9.95     print, $20

"I want to thank you for creating your book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. It is rare to find a person with a mind like yours, who can take a holistic systems view of things without being captured by specific perspectives or agendas. Your contribution to humanity is much appreciated."
Laura Y.

Gordon Long and I discuss The New Nature of Work: Jobs, Occupations & Careers (25 minutes, YouTube)

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

  Thank you, Robert K. ($20), for your marvelously generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.  

"This guy is THE leading visionary on reality. He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet, turn out to be quite relevant months later."
--Walt Howard, commenting about CHS on another blog.

"You shine a bright and piercing light out into an ever-darkening world."
Jeremy Beck

Contributors and subscribers enable Of Two Minds to post 275+ free essays annually. It is for this reason they are Heroes and Heroines of New Media. Without your financial support, the free content would disappear for the simple reason that I cannot keep body and soul together on my meager book sales alone.

Or send coins, stamps or quatloos via mail--please request P.O. Box address.

Subscribers ($5/mo) and those who have contributed $50 or more annually (or made multiple contributions totalling $50 or more) receive weekly exclusive Musings Reports via email ($50/year is about 96 cents a week).

Each weekly Musings Report offers six features:
1. Exclusive essay on a diverse range of topics
2. Summary of the blog this week
3. Best thing that happened to me this week
4. Market Musings--commentary on the economy & global markets
5. Cultcha/Culture: selected links to the arts, performances, music, etc.
6. From Left Field (a limited selection of interesting links)

At readers' request, there is also a $10/month option.

What subscribers are saying about the Musings (Musings samples here):

The "unsubscribe" link is for when you find the usual drivel here insufferable.

Dwolla members can subscribe to the Musings Reports with a one-time $50 payment; please email me if you use Dwolla, as Dwolla does not provide me with your email.

The Heroes & Heroines of New Media: contributors and subscribers

All content, HTML coding, format design, design elements and images copyright © 2014 Charles Hugh Smith, All global rights reserved in all media, unless otherwise credited or noted.

I am honored if you link to this essay, or print a copy for your own use.

Terms of Service:
All content on this blog is provided by Trewe LLC for informational purposes only. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information. The owner will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. These terms and conditions of use are subject to change at anytime and without notice.

blog     My Books     Archives     Books/Films     home


to your reader:

Making your Amazon purchases through this Search Box helps support at no cost to you:

search my site: