Monday, January 5, 2009

Black Swan Reveries

As a change of pace – away from my normal interest in literature and biography -- I read Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan; The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He basically argues that experience and therefore planning counts for little. We are all governed by extraordinary effects of unanticipated extraordinary events and not by planning the minutia from the observed experience of the past. Essentially, our planning tools, the normal statistical methods we use are only effective in “Mediocristan" a world in which extremes are limited, such as the normal height of human beings, and therefore a random selection of that particular universe is anticipatable and measurable. He contrasts Mediocristan with "Extremistan" the world in which chaotic extremes reign and therefore a random sampling will not be representative. Hence, it is fruitless to plan for such extremes. So much for free will.

We are left with a world we can plan for “inside the box” but the true impact to that world occurs outside the box.

It’s sort of an in your face, edgy presentation by Taleb, very cynical in some respects. I empathize with the latter because of years of corporate planning. With the development of, first, VisiCalc, then Lotus 123, and now Excel, this kind of planning has been taken to such an extreme that the process itself probably keeps half of corporate America employed. It always amused me; I used to call it the battle of the spreadsheets – central corporate vs. the operating companies.

Part of that “planning” involves associating or connecting past events and “making sense” out of them. He calls that “na├»ve empiricism,” a “natural tendency to look for instances that confirm our story or our vision of the world….Alas, with tools, and fools, anything can be easy to find. You take past instances that corroborate your theories and treat them as evidence.” Even more profound is his observation: “We humans are the victims of an asymmetry in the perception of random events. We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control, namely to randomness. We feel responsible for the good stuff, but not for the bad. This causes us to think that we are better than others at whatever we do for a living.” Decades of corporate life leave me saying Amen to that.

But, isn’t the existence of the worlds of Mediocristan vs. Extremistan self-evident? Obviously, we can only think within the box when dealing with processes such as sales forecasting, budgeting, etc., basing them on the past statistics from Mediocristan. And a “black swan event” is going to have a profound impact on the world of Mediocristan. We mere humans do not have much control over an asteroid hitting our planet. Taleb’s problem with the foregoing is that we think we do.

Besides being a mathematician and philosopher, Taleb is a hedge fund manager. I was therefore interested in how he translates his philosophy to investment. Essentially, he takes the position that 85% of one’s portfolio should be allocated to “risk free investments,” specifically US Treasury Bills and the remaining 15% into very high risk investments that could have an exponential payoff in a Black Swan event from the world of Extremistan. So after a very convincing and sometimes disturbing philosophical argument the author seems to fall victim to the very blindness he decries. Are T-Bills “risk free,” especially as the US seems to be on a course to guarantee every debt and every major corporate shortfall, not to mention the twin time bombs of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid as the baby boomers retire and unemployment rises? Now there is a Black Swan.