Black Swan Events in China… or China as a Black Swan Event?


Throughout his books, Nassim Taleb frequently refers to so-called black swan events, which he explains through a now-famous turkey analogy. Simply put, a turkey who is fed each and every day by his generous owners has every reason to believe humans are his friends. With each day that passes, more data strengthens the turkey’s viewpoint… until one day, close to Thanksgiving, that changes.

Needless to say, that day will not end well for our turkey and in a nutshell, this is what black swan events are: “calamities” which appear unexpectedly and frequently end up rendering everything we thought we knew about the (in our case financial) world around us obsolete.

A situation such as what happened when Greece became insolvent does not constitute a black swan event, for the simple reason that it developed over a long period of time and was hardly unexpected. On the contrary, it was expected as well as widely-covered an as such, while undoubtedly very serious, it was not something one would call a black swan event. On the opposite end of the spectrum, seeing one of the world’s top banks become insolvent overnight due to let’s say a derivatives arrangement gone wrong would represent a textbook black swan example. To be even more specific and refer to the Great Recession of 2007-2008, an obvious example was represented by Bear Stearns, an institution founded all the way back in 1923 and in which many market participants had complete confidence. Lehman Brothers, founded in the even more distant past (1850) represents another example to that effect.

Two important questions arise:

  1. Can black swan events occur in China?
  2. Can China itself end up representing a black swan event?

In both cases, the answer is unfortunately a resounding yes.

To address the first one, despite the fact that as mentioned ad nauseam here on, things are frequently different in China due to it not exactly being a Western society, this doesn’t mean China is somehow immune from the very basics in terms of human folly: fear and greed. To refer to stocks and be in tune with our previous financial industry examples, Chinese stocks were definitely not immune in 2007-2008 and even more so, experienced yet another crash in 2015-2016, to the point of now severely under-performing their Western counterparts despite China’s robust economic growth. Therefore, no, China is in no way immune to black swan events.

When it comes to the second question, the answer is once again yes because the deeper we dig, the more we realize all of the ingredients are there for China to actually represent the perfect black swan epicenter. Thanks to its robust economic growth over the past decades, the world has more or less become accustomed to the idea that China is the main driver of demand across a very wide range of industries.

And since the human mind tends to be quite eager to extrapolate, the same market participants believe that the status quo will persist for decades to come, counting on China when it comes to demand for anything from commodities to bonds. To put it differently, China has been put on such an economic pedestal that even a more pronounced hiccup might end up being enough to bring about a China-centered black swan event, especially in our deeply interconnected and overly-leveraged present-day financial industry framework.

No matter which angle you choose to view this situation from, it is quite problematic.

As someone who is interested in gaining exposure to Chinese assets or managing a portfolio which currently includes just that, perhaps the number one “rule” worth keeping in mind is that the temptation of putting China on a pedestal must be resisted at all costs. Yes, opportunities abound in China, the team firmly believes this.

At the same time, however, as an entity with a “real world” experience which stems from conducting business in China for over 12 years, we understand perhaps better so than other market participants that the ride can occasionally get bumpy. Whether this is caused by political turbulence such as the recent events in Hong Kong or by a strictly economic phenomenon such as an asset price crash is ultimately neither predictable nor the most important aspect. The name of the game is acknowledging that China is anything but immune from sentiment-driven market behavior and hedging accordingly.

This is precisely what the team is here to help you do. We would strongly recommend at the very least visiting our Consulting page and then heading over to the Contact section so as to book a short consulting session with us before making an important China-related decision. As our relationship progresses, we are convinced we will end up becoming your go-to consultants when it comes to “all things China” because as our articles and overall perspective on China make clear, we are here to provide brutally a rational perspective on China.

Unlike many teams of analysts who believe the choice with respect to China has to be binary (either being a cheerleading perma-bull or being a pessimistic perma-bear), we have come to understand that perhaps even more so than in other jurisdictions, “grey area” is the operative term in China. Within this grey area which constitutes a spectrum rather than a binary choice, great fortunes can be amassed but also lost. Needless to say, we are here to help with the former.