May 8th 2017

Whistling Past the Geopolitical Graveyard

by Nouriel Roubini

 

Nouriel Roubini is CEO of Roubini Macro Associates and Professor of Economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University.



NEW YORK – With Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, the European Union and the euro have dodged a bullet. But geopolitical risks are continuing to proliferate. The populist backlash against globalization in the West will not be stilled by Macron’s victory, and could still lead to protectionism, trade wars, and sharp restrictions to migration. If the forces of disintegration take hold, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU could eventually lead to a breakup of the EU – Macron or no Macron.

At the same time, Russia has maintained its aggressive behavior in the Baltics, the Balkans, Ukraine, and Syria. The Middle East still contains multiple near-failed states, such as Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon. And the Sunni-Shia proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran show no sign of ending.

In Asia, US or North Korean brinkmanship could precipitate a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. And China is continuing to engage in – and in some cases escalating – its territorial disputes with regional neighbors.

Despite these geopolitical risks, global financial markets have reached new heights. So it is worth asking if investors are underestimating the potential for one or more of these conflicts to trigger a more serious crisis, and what it would take to shock them out of their complacency if they are.

There are many explanations for why markets may be ignoring geopolitical risks. For starters, even with much of the Middle East burning, there have been no oil-supply shocks or embargos, and the shale-gas revolution in the United States has increased the supply of low-cost energy. During previous Middle East conflicts – such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – oil-supply shocks caused global stagflation and sharp stock-market corrections.

A second explanation is that investors are extrapolating from previous shocks, such as the attacks of September 11, 2001, when policymakers saved the day by backstopping the economy and financial markets with strong monetary and fiscal policy easing. These policies turned post-shock market corrections into buying opportunities, because the fall in asset prices was reversed in a matter of days or weeks.

Third, the countries that actually have experienced localized asset-market shocks – such as Russia and Ukraine after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into Eastern Ukraine in 2014 – are not large enough economically to affect US or global financial markets. Similarly, even as the UK pursues a “hard Brexit,” it still only accounts for around 2% of global GDP.

A fourth explanation is that the world has so far been spared from the tail risks associated with today’s geopolitical conflagrations. There has not yet been a direct military conflict between any major powers, nor have the EU or eurozone collapsed. US President Donald Trump’s more radical, populist policies have been partly contained. And China’s economy has not yet suffered from a hard landing, which would create sociopolitical instability.

Moreover, markets have trouble pricing such “black swan” events: “unknown unknowns” that are unlikely, but extremely costly. For example, the market couldn’t have predicted 9/11. And even if investors think that another major terrorist attack will come, they cannot know when.

A confrontation between the US and North Korea could also turn into a black swan event, but this is a possibility that markets have happily ignored. One reason is that, notwithstanding Trump’s bluster, the US has very few realistic military options: North Korea could use conventional weapons to wipe out Seoul and its surroundings, where almost half of South Korea’s population lives, were the US to strike. Investors may be assuming that even if a limited military exchange occurred, it would not escalate into a full-fledged war, and policy loosening could soften the blow on the economy and financial markets. In this scenario, as with 9/11, the initial market correction would end up being a buying opportunity.

But there are other possible scenarios, some of which could turn out to be black swans. Given the risks associated with direct military action, the US is now alleged to be using cyber weapons to eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat against the US mainland. This may explain why so many of North Korea’s missile tests have failed in recent months. But how will North Korea react to being militarily decapitated?

One answer is that it could launch a cyber attack of its own. North Korea’s cyber-warfare capabilities are considered to be just a notch below those of Russia and China, and the world got an early glimpse of them in 2014 when it hacked into Sony Pictures. A major North Korean cyber attack could disable or destroy parts of the US’s critical infrastructure, and cause massive economic and financial damage. That remains a risk even if the US can sabotage North Korea’s entire industrial system and infrastructure.

Or, faced with disruption of its missile program and regime, North Korea could go low-tech, by sending a ship with a dirty bomb into the ports of Los Angeles or New York. An attack of this kind would most likely be very hard to monitor or stop.

So, while investors may be right to discount the risk of a conventional military conflict between the US and North Korea, they also may be underestimating the threat of a true black swan event, such as a disruptive cyberwar between the two countries or a dirty bomb attack against the US.

Would an escalation on the Korean Peninsula be an opportunity to “buy the dip,” or would it mark the beginning of a massive market meltdown? It is well known that markets can price the “risks” associated with a normal distribution of events that can be statistically estimated and measured. But they have more trouble grappling with “Knightian uncertainty”: risk that cannot be calculated in probabilistic terms.


Nouriel Roubini is CEO of Roubini Macro Associates and Professor of Economics at the Stern School of Business, NYU.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jan 16th 2019
Consumer studies academics have been picking up on changing habits for a number of years. This includes an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people are buying less often and less overall. This is particularly true in the clothing industry, where research shows that millenials are especially unforthcoming – even after you factor in the shift to online retail. A lack of bricks and mortar did not, for instance, prevent online fashion retailer Asos from shocking the City with a profit warning shortly before Christmas. The American car industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people seem less interested in ownership. The average age of a new car buyer in the US was 50 in 2015. Or to give one more example, witness Apple’s recent trading problems. People are not only opting for cheaper smartphones, but they are keeping them for longer. If the world’s first company to pass the trillion dollar value mark is showing signs of struggling, we ought to take note.
Jan 15th 2019
[Eurozone] trades mainly within itself, re-invests its own savings, and doesn’t rely on large transfers into or out of other regions. So if another financial or commercial shock sends the rest of the world running backwards, the unloved single currency area may defy gravity as stubbornly as it resists reform.
Jan 11th 2019
Nine years ago, Britain generated nearly 75% of its electricity using natural gas and coal. In 2018, this dropped to under 45% – a remarkable transition away from fossil fuels in under a decade.:
Jan 10th 2019
What would have to happen for this to be a tranquil year economically, financially, and politically? Answer: a short list of threats to stability would have to be averted.
Jan 9th 2019
In the past, the US, despite all its own flaws and criminal conflicts, still stood as a force for good. An ideal of American openness and democracy was still worthy of admiration. At the same time, again as in the case of Western Europe, dependence on US military protection has had a less positive affect. It made Japan into a kind of vassal state; whatever the Americans wanted, Japan ends up having to do. This can have an infantilizing effect on politics. In the age of Trump, America is no longer so dependable. This might at least help to concentrate Japanese minds on how to get on in the world without the Americans. But the US has also ceased to be a model of freedom and openness. On the contrary, it has become an example of narrow nationalism, xenophobia, and isolationism. Japanese nationalists need no encouragement to follow this model. If they do so, Trump certainly will not stand in their way. They will echo the worst aspects of contemporary America – and throw away the best of what the US once had to offer.
Jan 8th 2019
Swedish academic Hans Rosling has identified a worrying trend: not only do many people across advanced economies have no idea that the world is becoming a much better place, but they actually even think the opposite. This is no wonder, when the news focuses on reporting catastrophes, terrorist attacks, wars and famines. Who wants to hear about the fact that every day some 200,000 people around the world are lifted above the US$2-a-day poverty line? Or that more than 300,000 people a day get access to electricity and clean water for the first time every day? These stories of people in low-income countries simply doesn’t make for exciting news coverage. But, as Rosling pointed out in his book Factfulness, it’s important to put all the bad news in perspective.
Jan 3rd 2019
If hardline Brexiteers aren’t willing to do what it takes to maintain a frictionless border with the EU in Ireland, they need to acknowledge the likely consequences. Northern Ireland will then want to choose, in a referendum, whether to remain in the UK or to unify with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.........Such a step would be allowed under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the civil war and included a promise from the UK, Ireland, and the EU to keep regulations aligned across Ireland. Indeed, that deal leaves open the possibility of a reunified Ireland, if majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland decide, by referendum, that that is what they want. In 2016, Northern Ireland voted by a clear margin of 56%-44% to remain in the EU. Though the minority Conservative government is being propped up by the ten MPs representing Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, an even larger majority of Northern Irish voters would probably choose the EU today..........Last June, when asked about business leaders’ fears over Brexit, Johnson infamously declared, “Fuck business.” If he were honest, he would apply the same crude dismissiveness to Northern Ireland and Scotland. At least then it would be clear where the Brexiteers actually stand.
Jan 3rd 2019

Many years ago, I came across an pre-Islamic Arabic poem describing a camel running across the desert. Suddenly, the camel freezes in mid-stride.

Dec 28th 2018
Extract: "..........the eruption of the Yellow Vest protests [in France] was less about the fuel tax than what its introduction represented: the government’s indifference to the plight of the middle class outside France’s largest urban centers. With job and income polarization having increased across all developed economies in recent decades, the unrest in France should serve as a wake-up call to others............To be sure, France, like a number of other European countries, has its share of impediments to growth and employment, such as those rooted in the structure and regulation of labor markets. But any effort to address these issues must be coupled with measures that mitigate and eventually reverse the job and income polarization that has been fueling popular discontent and political instability."
Dec 27th 2018
A fog of political uncertainty hangs over Britain after Christmas. Only four things seem clear. First, the Conservative Party will have growing difficulty accommodating its fanatical English nationalist wing. Second, to save the UK from disaster, Parliament will have to get a grip on the process. Third, life outside the EU will, in any case, leave Britain poorer and less influential in the world. And, lastly, whatever the outcome, Brexit will be a divisive issue for years to come. The Brexiteers lied. The costs of leaving the EU were always destined to outweigh the benefits. Alas, the responsible, imaginative, and inclusive political leadership needed to minimize the damage is nowhere in sight.
Dec 19th 2018
Over the centuries, Jews have been blamed for all sorts of ills in Christian and Muslim societies, from the Great Plague of the fourteenth century to the financial crashes of modern times. In 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, produced by Imperial Russia’s secret police, “exposed” a diabolical Jewish plot to achieve world domination by promoting liberalism – and became a pretext for anti-Semitism in Europe. These narratives endure to this day, only now they are being projected onto a single Jew: George Soros............A disciple of the philosopher Karl Popper, Soros has promoted open societies as the ultimate guarantee of freedom from tyranny and religious or ideological indoctrination.....
Dec 17th 2018
Theresa May has survived a vote of no confidence in her leadership but to quote the prime minister: “Nothing has changed.” The Conservative Party remains just as divided as it was before. While divisions over Europe have been very prominent recently, they have been a thorn in the side of the party leadership for many years now. That said, looking at the situation today it’s hard to imagine how these rival ideologies have managed to coexist within the same party for so long.
Dec 11th 2018
WASHINGTON, DC – Though he rarely admits even the slightest discontent with the job he schemed for in unprecedented ways and somewhat accidentally fell into (thanks to the vagaries of the Electoral College), Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t been what Americans would call a bowl of cherries. Yet no other week of his presidency so far has been filled with such problems and so many dark omens for him.
Dec 10th 2018
This Human Rights Day (December 10) marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sadly, events over the past few years show that the world is failing to uphold the commitments enshrined in that document, particularly when it comes to protecting children. For example, in separatist-controlled parts of Eastern Ukraine, where more than 200,000 children are receiving their education in militarized areas, bullets have struck kindergarten windows. In April, the Afghan air force, backed by US-led NATO coalition advisers, reportedly killed 36 students, teachers, and parents, and wounded 71 others, at a graduation ceremony. And in August, the Saudi-led coalition that has been waging war against Houthi rebels in Yemen dropped a bomb on a school bus, killing 40 boys between the ages of six and 11.
Dec 7th 2018
Figures like Boris Johnson, with his Churchillian pretensions, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, who resembles a minor character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, are anachronisms. In earlier times, they might have run an empire. Now they are mere politicians in a middle-ranking state. Brexit for the likes of Johnson or Rees-Mogg is more like a deluded grab for power, undertaken in the name of the common people, supposedly in revolt against the elites of which these politicians are themselves conspicuous members. Their nostalgia for grander forms of rule has already done great damage to the country they claim to love. This is all the more reason, now that the potential catastrophe of Brexit is so plain to see, why those common people should have a second chance to vote for a way to avoid it.
Dec 4th 2018
The argument against a second referendum is that it would be deeply divisive, especially if it leads to a reversal of the first referendum. But this rather misses the point. The hardline Brexiteers will reject any compromise with the EU. As ideological purists, they will not be satisfied until the UK is fully out of the EU, even if it means jumping off a cliff. Happily, the British public is unlikely to accept that option. So, whatever happens, the Brexit debate will rumble on. In the meantime, we Britons should apologize to our friends around the world. Our national spectacle of self-harm must be growing tiresome.
Dec 1st 2018
.......since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have again dropped precipitously, to 66% in October and November. Beyond “making Russia great again” on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms, which included an increase in the retirement age.
Nov 30th 2018
The Senate slapped the Trump administration around on Wednesday, voting 63-37 to bring to the floor a proposal to end US involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. I should declare my own interest by saying that I was one of 50-some Middle East experts and policy-makers who signed a letter to the senators urging them to take this step........The vote was the most significant bipartisan measure to come out of the senate in ages, and fell just short of a veto-proof two-thirds majority.
Nov 23rd 2018
Vibrant capitalist economies have always depended on a carefully calibrated balance between government policy and private competition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s significantly extended the previously minimal role of the US federal government. But, rather than holding back growth and destroying private enterprise, it was followed by 30 years of spectacular capitalist development, spreading prosperity as never before and dramatically expanding the ranks of the American middle class. Ayn Rand’s free-market utopia, so beloved by climate-change deniers, is as detached from real-world complexities, and as likely to produce social and environmental disaster, as simplistic Marxist faith in the inevitable efficiency and incorruptibility of the state.
Nov 22nd 2018
Trump’s statement on his policy toward Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder in Istanbul of dissident Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought a profound shame on the United States that will, as FDR put it, live in infamy. Trump began by saying he was putting America first, but that was the last thing he was doing. He was putting his own personal predilections and policies, and perhaps profit, above the interests of the United States. Here are the ways he put America last: