As some of us cautiously begin to emerge from shelter-in-place orders to restart some of our activities outside the home, we are all wondering what the “new normal” will look like, and what the long term economic impact of the pandemic will be. Did you know that many economists call what we are now experiencing a “black swan event?” The Macmillan Dictionary defines this expression as “an event that is extremely rare and unexpected but has very significant consequences.”
The term as it is used today is attributed to a Lebanese-American stock market trader-turned-author named Nassim Taleb. In his 2001 book “Fooled by Randomness – The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets,” he made the case that the stock market was unpredictable and could be massively influenced by rare events or “black swans.” He built on the popularity of the phrase with another book in 2007, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.” Of course, as we all know, the stock market has been very hard hit by the global impact of COVID-19.
So where did the expression “black swan” originate? Two thousand years ago, in the days of the Roman Empire, it was widely believed that all swans were white.
Fast forward a couple of centuries to the Middle Ages and the term “black swan” became a common expression in England meaning “an impossibility.”
Since all historical records about swans described them as white, it was widely presumed that no black ones had ever or could ever exist.
But nature has a funny way of occasionally surprising us and proving us wrong. In the late 1600s, a Dutch explorer named Willem de Vlamingh commanded a three-ship rescue mission to Australia’s west coast. The Dutch had first discovered Australia earlier that century.
This intrepid explorer set off from the Netherlands to find survivors of the ship Ridderschap van Holland that had gone missing two years earlier. The mission failed as they did not find any evidence of the ship or survivors.
However, De Vlamingh did explore parts of Australia that Europeans had never seen before, and it is believed that he was the first European to sail up the river he named Zwaanenrivier, which means “Swan River” in Dutch.
He was astounded to see large water birds with mostly black plumage and red bills. They were pretty similar to other swans except for their color. They were black!
We now know that the black swan is a species of bird that inhabits the southeast and southwest Australia.
Their migration patterns are unpredictable and change drastically depending on the weather. Rare and unexpected, but they do exist.
In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill, an influential English philosopher, used “black swan” as a new term to identify rare, unexpected but very consequential events – things that were first perceived to be impossible, but later were proven to be very possible.
Early this century, Taleb applied the same concept to economics, the stock market and investing.
In recent weeks, Taleb has been reported as complaining that the current pandemic should not be described as a “black swan” event. I am not really sure why.
In his books, Taleb stated that a black swan event is: 1) beyond normal expectations and is so rare that even the possibility that it might occur is unknown; 2) has a catastrophic impact when it does occur; and 3) is generally explained in hindsight as if it were actually predictable.
His published theory explains that high-profile, rare and hard to predict events that dominate history, economics and our cultural awareness will occasionally happen but are outside of normal expectations and will have a disproportionately large impact on, well, pretty much everything.
These events cannot be accurately predicted, so WHAM – investors react quickly and severely.
The good news is that the economy and the stock market have recovered and prospered after each black swan event of the last half century: the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979; the Black Monday stock market crash in 1987; the Dot-Com crash in 2000; 9/11 in 2001; the global financial crisis in 2008; and Brexit in 2016.
This year, we have COVID-19, and only time will tell how the markets, the economy and the world in general will recover from it. I am old enough to remember all of these events, including as a small business owner back in England during 9/11.
As I so often do, I rely on a historical perspective for comfort, and so prospects seem good in the medium to long term. We just have to hold the faith and get from here to there.
Media outlet Visual Capitalist recently published an article titled “Black Swans: Shortterm Crisis, Long-term Opportunity.” In it, they make the case that while black swan declines in the market are fast and severe, they tend to be short lived.
During most of these events, the market recovered in a few months, with 1987’s Black Monday being the major exception and taking longer. Let’s all hope that history repeats itself and we see a short, sharp decline with a return to normality as fast as possible.
As of this writing, the signs look pretty good – the Dow Jones Industrial Average has recovered 50% of its big loss just six weeks ago.
God bless America. Stay safe, stay well, and stay positive.