And so when they came and cleaned out my retirement account and wiped clean my bank account leaving me no means to feed myself or fend for my family, there was nothing I could do, there was no one to fight for me.”
~ Matt Weidner
Trade-Off: Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion: a study in global systemic collapse
This study considers the relationship between a global systemic banking, monetary and solvency crisis and its implications for the real-time flow of goods and services in the globalised economy. It outlines how contagion in the financial system could set off semi-autonomous contagion in supply chains globally, even where buyers and sellers are linked by solvency, sound money and bank intermediation. The cross-contagion between the financial system and trade/production networks is mutually reinforcing.
It is argued that in order to understand systemic risk in the globalised economy, account must be taken of how growing complexity (interconnectedness, interdependence and the speed of processes), the de-localisation of production and concentration within key pillars of the globalised economy have magnified global vulnerability and opened up the possibility of a rapid and large-scale collapse. ‘Collapse’ in this sense means the irreversible loss of socio-economic complexity which fundamentally transforms the nature of the economy. These crucial issues have not been recognised by policy-makers nor are they reflected in economic thinking or modelling.
As the globalised economy has become more complex and ever faster (for example, Just-in-Time logistics), the ability of the real economy to pick up and globally transmit supply-chain failure, and then contagion, has become greater and potentially more devastating in its impacts. In a more complex and interdependent economy, fewer failures are required to transmit cascading failure through socio-economic systems. In addition, we have normalised massive increases in the complex conditionality that underpins modern societies and our welfare. Thus we have problems seeing, never mind planning for such eventualities, while the risk of them occurring has increased significantly. The most powerful primary cause of such an event would be a large-scale financial shock initially centring on some of the most complex and trade central parts of the globalised economy.
The argument that a large-scale and globalised financial-banking-monetary crisis is likely arises from two sources. Firstly, from the outcome and management of credit over-expansion and global imbalances and the growing stresses in the Eurozone and global banking system. Secondly, from the manifest risk that we are at a peak in global oil production, and that affordable, real-time production will begin to decline in the next few years. In the latter case, the credit backing of fractional reserve banks, monetary systems and financial assets are fundamentally incompatible with energy constraints. It is argued that in the coming years there are multiple routes to a largescale breakdown in the global financial system, comprising systemic banking collapses, monetary system failure, credit and financial asset vaporization. This breakdown, however and whenever it comes, is likely to be fast and disorderly and could overwhelm society’s ability to respond.
We consider one scenario to give a practical dimension to understanding supply-chain contagion: a break-up of the Euro and an intertwined systemic banking crisis. Simple argument and modelling will point to the likelihood of a food security crisis within days in the directly affected countries and an initially exponential spread of production failures across the world beginning within a week. This will reinforce and spread financial system contagion. It is also argued that the longer the crisis goes on, the greater the likelihood of its irreversibility. This could be in as little as three weeks. This study draws upon simple ideas drawn from ecology, systems dynamics, and the study of complex networks to frame the discussion of the globalised economy. Real-life events such as United Kingdom fuel blockades (2000) and the Japanese Tsunami (2011) are used to shed light on modern trade vulnerability.
The author then continues…
We do not like to think of ourselves as potentially irrational herd animals (that will be the Jones’s). We seek narrative frameworks that purport to explain our good fortune, ideally in ways that flatter. Reinhardt and Rogoff called it the This Time It’s Different syndrome as each age sought to deflect warnings by arguing we’re smarter now, better organised, or living in a different world. Just as the sellers of an overpriced home will convince themselves that it was their interior decorating skills not an inflating bubble that got them the good deal.
Of course warnings may keep coming, and almost by definition, from the fringes. When assessing risks that challenge consensus, people are more likely to defer to authority, which generally sees itself as the representative of the consensus. Furthermore, as a species with strong attachments to group affirmation, being wrong in a consensus is often a safer option than being right but facing social shaming, or especially if found to be wrong later.
Far better to say: “Look, don’t blame me, nobody saw this coming, even the experts got it wrong!”
But even if we can appreciate a warning, the inertia of the status quo generally ensures acting on such warnings is difficult. In general we chose the easiest path in the short-term, and the easiest path is the one we are familiar and adaptive with. We would rather put off a hard and high consequence decision now, even if it meant much higher consequences some time in the future. However, if each step on the path of least resistance is a step further from where we ideally should be, the risks associated with doing anything rise as the divergence is so much wider. Eventually one’s bluff may be called, but not yet, and hopefully on somebody else’s watch.
The consensus can often be correct and the marginal voices may be deluded. The point for the risk manager is to try and step through cognitive and social blind-spots by first recognising them. This is particularly true if the risks (probability times impact) considered are very high.
Unfortunately, it is very clear that we have learned almost nothing general about risk management as a societal practice arising from the financial crisis. We have merely adopted a new consensus, with a questionable acknowledgement that we will not let this type of crisis happen again. However, the argument in this following report is that we are facing growing real-time, severe, civilisation transforming risks without any risk management.
We are locked into an unimaginably complex predicament and a system of dependency whose future seems at growing risk. To avoid catastrophe we must prepare for failure.
We are entering a time of great challenge and uncertainty, when the systems, ideas and stories that framed our lives in one world are torn apart, but before new stories and dependencies have had time to evolve. Our challenge is to let go, and go forth.
Our immediate concern is crisis and shock planning. It should now be clear that this is far more extensive than merely focussing on the financial system. It includes how we might move forward if a reversion to current conditions proves impossible. That is we also need transition planning and preparation. Even while subject to lock-in and the reflexivity trap, this will be most effective if it works from bottom-up as well as top-down.
Finally, neither wealth nor geography is a protection. Our evolved co-dependencies mean that we are all in the together.
Full paper below…