Guest Post: Black Swans And Complexity

Tyler Durden's picture

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Coke and Hookers's picture

Most Zerohedge posters know what happened. The only question is if it was by design or stupidity.

plantigrade's picture

Is there really a difference ?

hedgeless_horseman's picture



...if it was by design or stupidity...

I have found the best response to this question, for me, arrives on page 64 of the paperback version of Confessions of an Economic Hitman.  The paragraph starts:

"I vacillitated between viewing such people as an actual conspiracy and simply seeing them as a tight-knit fraternity bent on dominating the world."

RichardP's picture

Why did you do that? they were asked.

Because we could they replied.  That is what differentiates us from you.

spiral_eyes's picture

"Nassim Taleb is wrong about the financial crisis and black swans.

The ongoing financial crisis is not the result of a perplexing phenomenon of complexity. It is the beginning of a train wreck we have seen for decades. We are not wandering into a surprise or horrified by the dark specter of a Black Swan rearing its long tailed head; this macro crisis appeared on the horizon long ago, easily calculated by any actuary armed with the knowledge that governments were not investing tax streams, but stealing them for current consumption."

— This guy obviously has not read much Nassim Taleb.

Oh regional Indian's picture

But he is right. Taleb's black swan is a 6-9 sigma event, un-knowable, but always there.

In today's curcumstances, the sword of democles is right there for us to see. With all 6 blades of social instability, financial instability, government corruption, planetary upset...etc...

It's not where from but which one. I think one of the key aspects that many do not realize is that the center of the bell-curve has shifted. Permanently. It's been moving rapidly since September 2001.



spiral_eyes's picture

A whole load of people have mistakenly charged Taleb with saying that the last financial crisis was a "black swan" that arose from nowhere. Actually he never said any such thing — he was always talking about the fact that derivatives exposure, social instability (your six blades) etc, made society much more vulnerable to negative black swans.

Black swans will always happen. The real question is whether your society is vulnerable to them. What Nassim Taleb did was explain what black swans were, and why our society today is exceptionally vulnerable to them. 

A whole lot of idiotic news anchors and commentators have misquoted and taken Taleb out of context as basically saying that "the last financial crisis was a black swan" and that is the "Taleb" that this guy is talking about, not the real Taleb, who is much more nuanced.

BorisTheBlade's picture


 made society much more vulnerable to negative black swans.

Yes, but it is self-evident. If tomorrow something happens that no one can predict on a scale never expected in the place no one can even think about (i.e. 100% black swan), then obviously society will have much less resources at its disposal or structural stability to deal with it than 20 years ago for example. The trouble is that society doesn't need a black swan event to start breaking down, it is already in the process of decomposition, caused by the events, which are neither random nor unexpected for those paying attention. That makes practical value of Taleb's observations 'somewhat' questionable. Black swan can only accelerate the process, but it will run its course even in absence of it. Taleb is not wrong per se, his observation of normalcy bias is correct, but what it adds to what was known before him?

spiral_eyes's picture

Yes — the fundamentals are very bad. Ironically (this is what you are missing) they are so bad that it would take a positive black swan to avoid decomposition.

And that's the point — the concept of black swans has nothing specifically to do with market crashes, or decompositions, or anything negative in general. This is what the dumbass journalists, academics and commentators grossly misunderstand about Taleb. Black swans are just unexpected, "improbable" and unimagined events that look obvious in hindsight, and have a massive effect.

Taleb's real insights are mainly about societal and systemic fragilities to various thing: arrogance, randomness, black swans, normalcy bias, etc. He has a new book coming out called Antifragility which will delve deeper into this. 


Bicycle Repairman's picture

My summary of the article.  The world's governance is too centralized and thus everything is correlated.  So any change is now very large.  The actual economy is too complex for any centralized governing structure and the structure is solely interested in self-preservation, so any change by the structure now makes things worse for the actual economy.  Thus we get large changes that are bad for the actual economy.  As the actual economy worsens, the structure also comes under great stress.

The centralization was by design, IMHO.  The idea that intelligent people have not been observing and thinking about this over the last 100 years is impossible.  While they do not know the exact outcome, they are aware of the possibilities and have plans for each.  For example, the ruling clique have no problem going full Soviet, if the complex mechanism fails.  Ultimately it is about control and nothing else. 

BorisTheBlade's picture

Ironically (this is what you are missing) they are so bad that it would take a positive black swan to avoid decomposition.

A miracle in other words, I agree, we definitely need one to avoid what is coming. Except, neither it depends on us to bring it, nor can we predict what it will be, or when, if at all, will it happen - by definition.

Black swans are just unexpected, "improbable" and unimagined events that look obvious in hindsight, and have a massive effect.

That's the problem that I have with the whole black swan concept - it is very vaguely stated and gives a lot of room for interpretation, not sure if even Taleb himself can categorize which event constitutes a black swan even on the hindsight and which is not. On the one hand, financial crisis was considered by majority as 'improbable', whether by ignorance or other reasons, by the impact it fits on the extreme side - i.e. fat tail event, it's the biggest financial event for the last 70 years or so and it affects and will affect millions of people and yet it's not a black swan:

  1. The event is a surprise (to the observer).
  2. The event has a major impact.
  3. After its first recording, the event is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected (e.g., the relevant data were available but not accounted for).

Where the financial crisis doesn't fit his own definition? And on the other hand, why blame journalists for using the definition in that context if they as observers didn't expect it? That's a major inconsistency in what pretends to be a called a theory. If anything, in his own words, whether the event is a black swan or not depends on the level of knowledge of the observer: i.e. for an absolutely clueless observer everything in hindsight looks like a black swan.

spiral_eyes's picture

Black swans are subjective. To a turkey at thanksgiving its killing is a black swan event. To the butcher, it is not. Black swans (the literal type) in Australia were known to Australians before European conquest, but not to Europeans.

2008 was a black swan to most observers (not to most of us here on Zero Hedge who are schooled in bubble theory), and Taleb's book came out at the same time. It's an unfortunate co-incidence that black swans have come to be equated with economic crashes, when that is not at all what Taleb meant. 

BorisTheBlade's picture

 Black swans are subjective. To a turkey at thanksgiving its killing is a black swan event.

One has to go through experience of being a turkey pre-thanksgiving to say that. That's a very loose assumption. Moreover, turkey has to have some conscience to categorize the event as a black swan, which it doesn't possess. For a turkey, there is hardly any surprise - head goes off immediately and there is no benefit of hindsight either, it's gone together with its head. So where is a black swan here? It doesn't fit Taleb's own criteria #3:

 After its first recording, the event is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected (e.g., the relevant data were available but not accounted for).

whiskeyjim's picture

You are correct. But I do understand Taleb. But it is not what he implied in his article in Foreign Affairs, and that is the article i responded to.

If you read my paper, you will see that I agree with Mr. Taleb regarding complexity and black swans. It just isn't the problem with the artificial banking system and the government. We are watching a slow motion collapse; that we do not know exactly when it will arrive does not make it a black swan.

stirners_ghost's picture

"Sigma" -- another safe concept from the world of the Gaussian.

You obviously haven't read Taleb, either. Or perhaps his cold, acidic skepticism couldn't penetrate the thick broth of mystical horseshit you marinate in.

GoldBricker's picture

Hahaha! Thank you. It only takes about 10 pages of Taleb to figure out what he thinks of applying the Gaussian curve to real-world events. It's the old drunk-looking-for-his-keys cliché.

Let's discuss some more books we haven't read. I nominate General Theory of Money, Credit, and Interest.

I would shamelessly plug my web site right about here, but I ain't got one, so instead of more of my bullshit, spend the time reading a decent book.

Oh regional Indian's picture

My thick broth of mystical horseshit will eat your cold hard skepticism for lunch and dinner Bud. And Sigma is a concept? You think you understand distribution? Normal or otherwise? or you think it does not exist?

Inviolable, observational and expriential lessons are far better than bookrap. I suggest you study your own self. 

Very interesting how everyone negative here goes for the personal attack.

Oh and watch out for your fat tail and the batwing doors, will you?


spiral_eyes's picture

Yes, standard deviations are an abstract concept, ORI.

I don't agree with the personal attacks (easiest way to lose an argument).

Ironically, the idea that "Inviolable, observational and experiential lessons are far better than bookrap" is another of Taleb's favourite topics...

I think you'd really enjoy reading him.

Oh regional Indian's picture

Of course it is s_e, of course. But it fits a "normal" distribution which is a fact of nature. It's visible, tangible. The normal distribution that is. Standard deviations are as abstract or real as any of our other constructs we've come up with to explain and/or predict the world.

And that's funny eh, read Taleb who says go out, touch, feel, experience the real world? I'm a bibliophile who has stopped reading things that don't matter so much anymore, especially in the face of what is coming up.

And yes, I always prefer being nice to the person, works better, good karma, the works.


UP Forester's picture

There are three kinds of lies:  Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

ucsbcanuck's picture

ORI - In Black Swan you will find that Taleb actually agrees with you. The normal distribution is a fact of nature and can be used to characterise certain variables in nature very well e.g. height of adults.

However, there are other variables which are not well explained by the normal distribution. Therefore, it's wrong to apply a normal distribution to these variables.

slewie the pi-rat's picture

tyler put up an essay co-authored by Taleb and another professor a short while ago so maybe this is in dialgue with that, but it's all too complex for slewie!

GoldBricker's picture

I guess that Taleb is like other iconic writers (including Keynes) now: he is frequently cited, seldom read.

Read him, folks, he's much better in print than he is on TV. Start with Fooled by Randomness. The Black Swan builds on Fooled.

For you literature majors, his alternate-timelines explanation of Robbe-Grillet's novels is better than anything I ever got from several French-lit PhDs I knew over the years, and not only illustrates his theories perfectly, but also meshes with science fiction. That alone made the book worth reading.

spiral_eyes's picture

Keynes is another fantastic example.

Ironically, the "Keynesians" are probably the biggest misunderstanders of Keynes. I love quoting Keynes at them to debunk their views.

Ghordius's picture

+1000 - I also love to quote Lord Keynes. And it's hilarious how he was "treated" by/in the US when he was in the British delegation to the US after the war, today he would probably get standing ovations everywhere with Nobel Prize winners licking his feet. Get an avatar, dammit.

CIABS's picture

"I vacillitated between viewing such people as an actual conspiracy and simply seeing them as a tight-knit fraternity bent on dominating the world."

A tight-knit fraternity bent on dominating the world [and succeeding at it] is something other than a conspiracy?  I would think that the vacillation is between those things on one had and seeing the course of history as a blind juggernaut on the other.

"Most Zerohedge posters know what happened. The only question is if it was by design or stupidity."

I think that a few high-level people had a design-level awareness of things, and a lot more figured out where things were going as events unfolded.  There are always people who don't know what's going on, including many in high places.  Their actions might amount to "stupidity".  But the most important and interesting part of the story in hindsight is who had the design-level awareness and what was the design.  Going forward, of course, the most interesting and important questions are how will it all play out and what will the aftermath look like.

zorba THE GREEK's picture

Just because a Black Swan will not be needed to bring the house of cards down doesn't mean

there won't be one. The MF Global article above this one describes what could be the Black Swan

that no one saw coming.

Yen Cross's picture

 Best wishes , From a Christian, 

DoChenRollingBearing's picture

@ nmewn, both that´s right.  Would green you, but this computer (here in Peru) that I work on at night has some faults...  So, please accept a virtual + 1 green!

nmewn's picture

Back atcha...and I did a driveby on Yen's, just to screw around with the atheists junking him. They always seem so wound up & tight, they could pop a blood vessel or sumpin at any minute now and make a brand new horizons & vistas and what

You know me, always tryin to be helpful ;-)

The Navigator's picture

Did it for you - my computer is still working and the internets are up tonight.

Best, The Navigator

DaveyJones's picture

stupid design or designed stupidity?

nmewn's picture

"There is no Superman of bureaucracy. There are no rules or regulations that will prevent failure or negate investment on our road to prosperity >>>that we do not already know.<<< Our institutions have just consistently rejected them. >>>After all, leverage and redistribution is much easier than successful investment.<<< In a complex system, these bureaus would have died and been replaced by their betters long ago."

We're in the very best of hands.

Duck & cover ;-)

CompassionateFascist's picture

Best piece I've yet read on the Debt Bomb. Even an economist can understand it. Anything this obvious, though, has to be purposeful at some level. Not, certainly, for (most of) the politicians...they simply want to get re-elected, +keep their snouts in the trough, and are trapped by special interests and group entitlements demanding, more, more, more. However, the Squid, the Redshield, and like operations know what they're doing: blow everything up and erect the True Zion upon the ruins. Too bad for them, they're not going to get away with it: they were unable to disarm the population of the hegemonic power...or prevent subordinate powers from getting nukes. Too bad for us too, but I think that more of us than them are going to survive the violent conversation that's about to commence.  

pkea's picture

no doubt by design using other's stupidity

kridkrid's picture

No way is/was it stupidity.  Credit/debt money isn't new and it isn't complicated and the end result it always the same.

jonan's picture

if it is stupidity i tend to think there is hope, on the other hand if it is by design best lock and load, come and get them bitchez...the scary part is the no one will know what the answer is until it happens...

pods's picture

Easy, if it was mere stupidity, then the moneyed class would not have bought the political structures to backstop them and shove the debt piles on the citizenry.

And since this has been going on since the first bankster figured out they could loan out credit, there is too big of a coincidence of events for it to be stupidity.

When these evens happen, as they always do, the banks foist their debt onto the central bank. Since the central bank prints the currency of the realm, they have access to tax revenue.

The banks merely reduce their leverage before the money spigot (austerity) gets turned off.

All the intial printing benefits the banks, who heal their balance sheets.  After inflation starts to take hold, the printing stops.

This allows the banks to respossess the property for pennies through default, which is a mathematical certainty during deflationary events.

Same game that has been played for over a century in earnest.


El Gordo's picture

In Europe, stupidity.


In US, design.

pkea's picture

the good thing europe has capacity and may save us by bringing the fed and all US and global financial sector with their down to earth policies and properties of a more complex system:)

three chord sloth's picture

Design or stupidity? I'd say neither. Necessity and arrogance is my take.

The necessity was of a purely selfish nature -- they needed to protect their own power and position. They had made extravagant promises to the people, these promises need steady growth to meet, the economy was no longer meeting those needed growth numbers organically, and that could cost them their jobs... so say hello to your new life partner, Mr. Perpetually Growing Debt. He's a friend of TPTB and will be staying on your couch... for the rest of your life. Don't forget to feed him.

The arrogance was thinking they could control the ever-bloating debt monster they created. The arrogance was inventing whole economic theories to justify perpetual debt growth... and thinking the economy would actually acknowledge those theories and obey them. The arrogance was believing they were the Indispensible Ones and the world would spin off its axis if they failed, were discredited and replaced. The arrogance was (and still is) thinking they are doing a good job, their ideas are working (and will work ever so much better if we just double down!).

So I guess you could say they had a design... but the damn world just refused to follow it, and nowadays they are just making it up as they go along, ad hoc and on the fly.

Seer's picture

Congratulations, you're the ONLY person who is close to getting it!

The inability to stoke the growth machine has resulted in this collapse.  This has been happening for quite a while now, mostly hitting the downside in 1970 (peak US oil production and USD [totally] off the gold standard).

But... if we only blame government then we clearly aren't understanding what really makes the world go, as this would happen even if there were no govts (as long as the driving economic forces were predicated on perpetual growth).

Max Fischer's picture



Can you explain how peak oil production in the US resulted in this collapse?

Max Fischer, Civis Mundi

rbg81's picture

Our system is like a greedy algorithm that makes the seemingly best local (short term) choices at the expense of what will work for the long term.  The short term concern among our political elite is getting re-elected.  The easiest way to do that is to spend $$ we don't have and go into debt.  Telling people NO causes pain.  Even people who claim they want to cut the deficit will balk when specific cuts are put on the table.

In short, we (Western Society) deserves the a$$ reaming that's coming to us.

tumblemore's picture

Cui bono? Who gains the most from deficit spending?

The banking cartels want deficit spending. The banking cartels buy the politicians. The politicians give the banksters what they want. Therefore the people who most deserve an a$$ reaming are the banksters. If and only if the banksters get theirs FIRST should anyone else even consider sharing the pain.

Seer's picture

"Who gains the most from deficit spending?"

Gains the most WHAT, and for how LONG?

rbg81's picture

The banking cartels buy the politicians.

Really?  I often wonder who "owns" who.  I contend that over the last 2 decades, the Politicians forced the Banks to abandon what had been sober, time proven practices to further their political agenda.  The Banks may appear to benefit, but they have lost the ability to make their own decisions and control their destiny.  For example, few (if any) in the Banking community through Dodd-Franks was a good idea; yet it got passed despite their objections.  In the end, I suspect the Bankers dance to the Politician's tune.  At best, its become a symbiotic, but ultimately destructive, relationship.