I’m writing this from my home in Sonoma County at the end of an intense week of witnessing firsthand the devastation caused by the many current fires burning in northern California. While it’s hard to focus on anything other than the moment-to-moment developments of this still-unfolding disaster, it’s already clear that the implications for my part of the state will last for many, many years to come.
It’s amazing how instantly the status quo where I live has changed. The world my neighbors and I lived in when we all went to bed on Sunday night simply no longer existed by the time we woke up on Monday morning. Lives have been lost. Entire neighborhoods — thousands of homes — have burned to the ground. Businesses, hospitals, and schools are now shuttered.
Having now experienced this personally — on top of watching news reports over the previous weeks of similarly abrupt “before/after” transitions in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, Mexico City, Las Vegas and Catalonia — I have a new-found appreciation for the maxim that when it arrives, change happens quickly — usually much more quickly than folks ever imagined, catching the general public off-guard and unprepared.
We, humans, tend to think linearly and comparatively. In other words, we usually assume the near future will look a lot like the recent past. And it does much of the time.
But other times it doesn’t. And that’s where the danger lies.
The Cruel Math
In 1987 a Danish physicist named Per Bak released a landmark paper introducing the concept of self-organized criticality. Bak observed that complex systems draw stability through an ongoing cycle of corrective collapses that keep the overall system from becoming too over-extended.
His point is best understood by watching a sand pile being formed. The pile rises as more grains of sand are added to it, until it hits a critical mass. At that point, the addition of more sand grains is likely to cause a limited collapse of the pile. The more grains of sand added, the more frequent these localized collapses are:
The key takeaway is that the end result of these collapses is that the overall size and shape of the sand pile as a whole are maintained — i.e. the smaller corrections are necessary for maintaining the ongoing stability of the larger system (in other words, the sand pile retains a constant shape over time).
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Without them, the system would grow unchecked until toppled by other laws of physics, yet at this point, the energy displacement of the collapse is so large that the system is destroyed or reset (in other words, the sand pile would rise in height over time until it collapsed entirely)
In his later 1996 book, How Nature Works, Bak showed how the same rules apply to the complex systems around us — earthquakes, traffic jams, biological evolution, forest fires, the distribution of galaxies in the universe — and financial markets, too.
His findings are universal to complex systems. Ongoing smaller corrections are necessary for long-term stability of the larger system. And while you can’t predict exactly when the next correction will occur, the longer it takes to happen, the larger it will be (as it has the more pent-up energy to displace).
Another way to look at this is: If the smaller corrections don’t happen, the system is being set up for a much bigger and more painful collapse in the future.
In many ways, we’re seeing this manifest via the rash of recent disasters.
Let’s look at hurricanes. 2010-2016 was one of the mildest periods on record when it comes to damaging storms making landfall in the US. For whatever reason, the usual seasonal “smaller corrections” just weren’t happening as frequently in the Atlantic.
Bak’s work would predict an increasing probability of an unusually busy season of destructive hurricanes to arrive. And, right on cue, 2017 has now been recognized as the 9th most-active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history (and the season isn’t over yet!). Underscoring the point, September 2017 proved to be the #1 single most active month for Atlantic tropical cyclones on record.
Similarly, the US West is coming off of a long stretch of regrettable forestry management practices — logging large trees, fire suppression, and livestock grazing — which reduced the natural occurrence and frequency of smaller-scale forest fires that prevented the build-up of combustible flora. As a result, the system has become much more vulnerable to unchecked fires — a situation made worse by the effects of the prolonged recent drought (just as the warmer temperature of the Gulf of Mexico is making hurricanes there more potent). Which is why the American West is experiencing its third most severe fire season in history this year.
Et Tu, S&P?
Don’t forget that Bak’s rules for complex systems also apply to financial markets.
With that in mind, it makes the inexorable mania and lack of micro-corrections since 2009 downright frightening. Just take a look at this price chart of the S&P 500, which is currently in its second-longest-ever bull market run:
We see that as stock prices have been on a one-way ride higher over the years, downside volatility has dried up, to the point where it now practically no longer exists:
Going back 55 years, the average cumulative intra-day losses over a 25-day period is about 660 basis points, or 6.6%. As of yesterday (October 10), the last 25 days have seen a grand total intra-day loss of just 96 basis points, or 0.96%. If that seems small, it is.
In fact, outside of the period ending November 26, 2014, this is the smallest cumulative 25-day intra-day loss in the past 46 years – and the only one registering less than 100 basis points.
Just as (until this fall) with the US east coast and hurricanes, or like my corner of California with wildfires, things since 2010 have been “too good for too long” for the financial markets. The usual cycle of smaller corrections has not been allowed to happen, resulting in an unnatural build-up of the system to a height from which a destructive re-set is increasingly probable.
How much longer this can continue is anyone guesses. But Bak’s work explains why it can’t go on forever, and why the resulting collapse will be more devastating the longer it takes to happen. And with the world, central banking cartel set to reduce total global QE — just as with hotter water temperatures in the Gulf — the conditions for catastrophe are ratcheting up.
We are getting closer and closer to the day when we awake to find the markets we had the day before no longer exist. Change happens that fast, even with financial markets. If you think you’ll be one of the smart ones to sell your current positions before things get too bad, talk to someone who was invested in the market on October 19, 1987, when it suddenly lost nearly 25% of its value in just a few hours.
While you’re at it, talk to someone in Houston, Tampa Bay, Puerto Rico or Mexico City. Or I can put you in touch with one of my friends from Santa Rosa. Anyone of them will tell you how stunningly swiftly fate can upend your best-laid plans.
Takeaways From Tragedy
Fortunately this week, I was one of the lucky ones. My family and property were spared.
But I can’t say the same for many in my community. From their loss, as well as from the threat I experienced earlier this week when the fires were much closer, here are some of the key learnings that came out of this crisis:
- Preparation only matters if it’s done in advance. And it matters a LOT — Those who had “go bags” and disaster kits in place before the fires fared much better than those who didn’t. They were able to evacuate faster, more safely, and with better self-sufficiency. And even a few small steps can make a big difference. I found that already have a stash of emergency cash, as well as several containers full of gas for my car, put me at a great advantage when it first looked like we were going to have fled our home. Putting it more bluntly: if you don’t have some sort of emergency prep kit at this point, you’re being unforgivably reckless. Need guidance on what to put in it?
- People matter much more than property — for those who had only minutes to flee the flames, they only cared about getting their loved ones to safety. All the “stuff” they accumulated in life didn’t even factor into their thinking at that moment. The big learning here? Don’t let possessions take an undue importance in your life. A disaster can quickly take them from you, and when forced to choose, you’ll pick people over things every time. So instead, place your focus on nurturing the relationships you value and maximizing the quality of time you can spend with those people.
- A community is priceless — no one can be prepared for everything. A community will provide for the things you lack. I’ve been blown away by the magnitude of the response from the generous folks living both within and without Sonoma County. As I wrote last week, tragedy offers a way for people to step into their best selves. Invest in your community now, so that it’s as robust as possible when you need to count on it. Looking for ways to build community?
These learnings apply to any crisis, but of course, depending on the type — natural, financial or otherwise — additional preparations come into play.
Because whether caused by Mother Nature or man’s own recklessness, we are due for more crisis. Don’t be caught unprepared.
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