How Market Complexity Could Trigger the Next Crash
Complex systems are all around us.
By one definition, a complex system is any system that features a large number of interacting components (agents, processes, etc.) whose aggregate activity is nonlinear (not derivable from the summations of the activity of individual components) and typically exhibits hierarchical self-organization under selective pressures.
In today’s infographic from Meraglim we use accumulating snow and an impending avalanche as an example of a complex system – but really, such systems can be found everywhere. Weather is another complex system, and ebb and flow of populations is another example.
Markets are Complex Systems
Just like in the avalanche example, where various factors at the top of a mountain (accumulating volumes of snow, weather, temperature, geology, gravity, etc.) make up a complex system that is difficult to predict, markets are similarly complex.
In fact, markets meet all the properties of complex systems, as outlined by scientists:
System actors have different points of view. (i.e. bullish, bearish, long, short, leveraged, non-leveraged, etc.)
Capital markets are over-connected, and information spreads fast. (i.e. chat rooms, phone calls, emails, Thomson Reuters, Dow Jones, Bloomberg, trading systems, order entry systems, etc.)
Trillions of dollars of securities are exchanged in transactions every day (i.e. stocks, bonds, currencies, derivatives, etc.)
4. Adaptive Behavior
Actors change their behavior based on the signals they are getting (i.e. making or losing money, etc.)
And like the avalanche example, where a single snowflake can trigger a much bigger event, there are increasing signs that the complexity behind the stock market has also reached a critical state.
Markets in a Critical State
Here are just some examples that show how the market has entered into an increasingly critical state:
The VIX, an index that aims to measure the volatility of the market, hit all-time lows this summer.
Bull Market Length
Meanwhile, the current bull market (2009-present) is the second-longest bull market in modern history at 3,109 days. The only bull market that was longer went from the 1987 crash to the Dot-com bust.
Valuations at Highs
Stock valuations, based on Robert Schiller’s CAPE ratio (which looks at cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings), are approaching all-time highs as well. Right now, it sits 83.3% higher than the historical mean of 16.8. It was only higher in 1929 and 2000, right before big crashes occurred.
Market Goes Up
Investor overconfidence leads investors to believe the market only goes up, and never goes down. Indeed, in this bull market, markets have gone up 67 of the months (an average gain of 3.3%), and have gone down only 34 months (average drop of -2.6%).
Here are some additional signs of systemic risk that make complex markets less stable:
- A densely connected network of bank obligations and liabilities
- Over $70 trillion in debt added since Financial Crisis
- Over $1 quadrillion in notional value of derivatives
- Non-bank shadow finance through hedge funds and securitization make risk impossible to measure
- Increased leverage of banks in some markets
- Greater concentration of financial assets in fewer companies
In other words, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about “snow” accumulation – and any such “snowflake” could trigger the avalanche.
In complex dynamic systems that reach the critical state, the most catastrophic event that can occur is an exponential function of scale. This means that if you double the system, you do not double the risk; you increase it by a factor of five or 10
– Jim Rickards, author of Road to Ruin
The Next Snowflake
What could trigger the next avalanche? It could be anything, including the failure of a major bank, a natural disaster, war, a cyber-financial attack, or any other significant event.
Such “snowflakes” come around every few years:
1987: Black Monday
The Dow fell 508 points (-22.6%) in one day.
1994-95: The Mexican peso crisis
Systemic collapse narrowly avoided when the U.S. government bailed out Mexico using the controversial $20 billion “Exchange Stabilization Fund”.
1997: Asian financial crisis
East Asian currencies fell in value by as much as -38%, and international stocks by as much as -60%.
1998: Long Term Capital Management
Hedge fund LTCM was in extreme distress, and within hours of shutting down every market in the world.
2000: The Dotcom crash
Nasdaq fell -78% in 30 months after early Dotcom companies crashed and burned.
2008: Lehman Brothers bankruptcy
Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and J.P. Morgan were days away from same fate until government stepped in.
Shelter from the Avalanche
The Fed and mainstream economists use equilibrium theory, regressions, and correlations to quantify the markets. And while they pay lip-service to black swans, they don’t have a good way of forecasting them or predicting them.
Markets are complex – and only complexity theory and predictive analytics can help to shed light on their next move.
Alternatively, investors can seek shelter from the storm by investing in assets that cannot be digitally frozen (bank accounts, brokerage accounts, etc.) or have their value inflated away (cash, fixed-income). Such assets include land, precious metals, fine art, and private equity.
Visualizing the Size of Amazon, the World’s Most Valuable Retailer
Amazon’s valuation has grown by 2,830% over the last decade, and the tech giant is now worth more than the other 9 largest U.S. retailers, combined.
Visualizing the Size of the World’s Most Valuable Retailer
As brick-and-mortar chains teeter in the face of the pandemic, Amazon continues to gain ground.
The retail juggernaut is valued at no less than $1.4 trillion—roughly four times what it was in late 2016 when its market cap hovered around $350 billion. Last year, the Jeff Bezos-led company shipped 2 billion packages around the world.
Today’s infographic shows how Amazon’s market cap alone is bigger than the nine biggest U.S. retailers put together, highlighting the palpable presence of the once modest online bookstore.
The New Normal
COVID-19’s sudden shift has rendered many retail outfits obsolete.
Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, and J.Crew have all filed for bankruptcy as consumer spending has migrated online. This, coupled with heavy debt loads across many retail chains, is only compounding the demise of brick-and-mortar. In fact, one estimate projects that at least 25,000 U.S. stores will fold over the next year.
Still, as safety and supply chain challenges mount—with COVID-19 related costs in the billions—Amazon remains at the top. It surpasses its next closest competitor, Walmart, by $1 trillion in market valuation.
How does Amazon compare to the largest retailers in the U.S.?
|10 Largest Public US Retailers*||Market Value July 1, 2020||Market Value July 1, 2010||Normalized % Change 2010-2020||Retail Revenue|
|The Kroger Co.||$26B||$13B||107%||$118Be|
|Walgreens Boots Alliance||$36B||$26B||38%||$111B|
|The Home Depot||$267B||$47B||466%||$108B|
|Combined value of retailers (without Amazon)||$1,071B|
Source: Deloitte, YCharts
*Largest public US retailers based on their retail revenue as of fiscal years ending through June 30, 2019, e=estimated
With nearly a 39% share of U.S. e-commerce retail sales, Amazon’s market cap has grown 2,830% over the last decade. Its business model, which aggressively pursues market dominance instead of focusing on short-term profits, is one factor behinds the rise.
By the same token, one recent estimate by The Economist pegged Amazon’s retail operating margins at -1% last year. Another analyst has suggested that the company purposefully sells retail goods at a loss.
How Amazon makes up for this operating shortfall is through its cash-generating cloud service, Amazon Web Services (AWS), and through a collection of diversified enterprise-focused services. AWS, with estimated operating margins of 26%, brought in $9.2 billion in profits in 2019—more than half of Amazon’s total.
Amazon’s Basket of Eggs
Unlike many of its retail competitors, Amazon has rapidly diversified its acquisitions since it originated in 1994.
Take the $1.2 billion acquisition of Zoox. Amazon plans to operate self-driving taxi fleets, all of which are designed without steering wheels. It is the company’s third largest since the $13.7 billion acquisition of organic grocer Whole Foods, followed by Zappos.
Accounting for the lion’s share of Amazon-owned physical stores, Whole Foods has 508 stores across the U.S., UK, and Canada. While Amazon doesn’t outline revenues across its physical retail segments—which include Amazon Books stores, Amazon Go stores, and others—physical store sales tipped over $17 billion in 2019.
Meanwhile, Amazon also owns gaming streaming platform Twitch, which it acquired for $970 million in 2017. Currently, Twitch makes up 73% of the streaming market and brought in an estimated $300 million in ad revenues in 2019.
Despite the flood of online orders due to quarantines and social distancing requirements, Amazon’s bottom line has suffered. In the second quarter of 2020 alone, it is expected to rack up $4 billion in pandemic-related costs.
Yet, at the same time, its customer-obsessed business model appears to thrive under current market conditions. As of July 1, its stock price has spiked over 51% year-to-date. On an annualized basis, that’s roughly 100% in returns.
As margins get squeezed and expenses grow, is Amazon’s growth sustainable in the long-term? Or, are the company’s strategic acquisitions and revenue streams providing the catalysts (and cash) for only more short-term success?
What’s At Risk: An 18-Month View of a Post-COVID World
The WEF surveyed 347 risk analysts to uncover the most likely post-pandemic threats—and no area from the economy to the environment is untouched.
What’s At Risk: An 18-Month View of a Post-COVID World
As the world continues to grapple with the effects of COVID-19, no part of society seems to be left unscathed. Fears are surmounting around the economy’s health, and dramatic changes in life as we know it are also underway.
In today’s graphic, we use data from a World Economic Forum survey of 347 risk analysts on how they rank the likelihood of major risks we face in the aftermath of the pandemic.
What are the most likely risks for the world over the next year and a half?
The Most Likely Risks
In the report, a “risk” is defined as an uncertain event or condition with the potential for significant negative impacts on various countries and industries. The 31 risks have been grouped into five major categories:
- Economic: 10 risks
- Societal: 9 risks
- Geopolitical: 6 risks
- Technological: 4 risks
- Environmental: 2 risks
Among these, risk analysts rank economic factors high on their list, but the far-reaching impacts of the remaining factors are not to be overlooked either. Let’s dive deeper into each category.
The survey reveals that economic fallout poses the most likely threat in the near future, dominating four of the top five risks overall. With job losses felt the world over, a prolonged recession has 68.6% of experts feeling worried.
|#1||Prolonged recession of the global economy||68.6%|
|#2||Surge in bankruptcies (big firms and SMEs) and a wave of industry consolidation||56.8%|
|#3||Failure of industries or sectors in certain countries to properly recover||55.9%|
|#4||High levels of structural unemployment (especially youth)||49.3%|
|#6||Weakening of fiscal positions in major economies||45.8%|
|#7||Protracted disruption of global supply chains||42.1%|
|#8||Economic collapse of an emerging market or developing economy||38.0%|
|#16||Sharp increase in inflation globally||20.2%|
|#20||Massive capital outflows and slowdown in foreign direct investment||17.9%|
|#21||Sharp underfunding of retirement due to pension fund devaluation||17.6%|
The pandemic has accelerated structural change in the global economic system, but this does not come without consequences. As central banks offer trillions of dollars worth in response packages and policies, this may inadvertently burden countries with even more debt.
Another concern is that COVID-19 is now hitting developing economies hard, critically stalling the progress they’ve been making on the world stage. For this reason, 38% of the survey respondents anticipate this may cause these markets to collapse.
High on everyone’s mind is also the possibility of another COVID-19 outbreak, despite global efforts to flatten the curve of infections.
|#10||Another global outbreak of COVID-19 or different infectious disease||30.8%|
|#13||Governmental retention of emergency powers and/or erosion of civil liberties||23.3%|
|#14||Exacerbation of mental health issues||21.9%|
|#15||Fresh surge in inequality and social divisions||21.3%|
|#18||Anger with political leaders and distrust of government||18.4%|
|#23||Weakened capacity or collapse of national social security systems||16.4%|
|#24||Healthcare becomes prohibitively expensive or ineffective||14.7%|
|#26||Failure of education and training systems to adapt to a protracted crisis||12.1%|
|#30||Spike in anti-business sentiment||3.2%|
With many countries moving to reopen, a few more intertwined risks come into play. 21.3% of analysts believe social inequality will be worsened, while 16.4% predict that national social safety nets could be under pressure.
Further restrictions on trade and travel movements are an alarm bell for 48.7% of risk analysts—these relationships were already fraught to begin with.
|#5||Tighter restrictions on the cross-border movement of people and goods||48.7%|
|#12||Exploitation of COVID-19 crisis for geopolitical advantage||24.2%|
|#17||Humanitarian crises exacerbated by reduction in foreign aid||19.6%|
|#22||Nationalization of strategic industries in certain countries||17.0%|
|#27||Failure to support and invest in multilateral organizations for global crisis response||7.8%|
|#31||Exacerbation of long-standing military conflicts||2.3%|
In fact, global trade could drop sharply by 13-32% while foreign direct investment (FDI) is projected to decline by an additional 30-40% in 2020.
The drop in foreign aid could also put even more stress on existing humanitarian issues, such as food insecurity in conflict-ridden parts of the world.
Technology has enabled a significant number of people to cope with the impact and spread of COVID-19. An increased dependence on digital tools has enabled wide-scale remote working for business—but for many more without this option, this accelerated adoption has hindered rather than helped.
|#9||Cyberattacks and data fraud due to sustained shift in working patterns||37.8%|
|#11||Additional unemployment from accelerated workforce automation||24.8%|
|#25||Abrupt adoption and regulation of technologies (e.g. e-voting, telemedicine, surveillance)||13.8%|
|#28||Breakdown of IT infrastructure and networks||6.9%|
Over a third of the surveyed risk analysts see the emergence of cyberattacks due to remote working as a rising concern. Another near 25% see the threat of rapid automation as a drawback, especially for those in occupations that do not allow for remote work.
Last but certainly not least, COVID-19 is also potentially halting progress on climate action. While there were initial drops in pollution and emissions due to lockdown, some estimate there could be a severe bounce-back effect on the environment as economies reboot.
|#19||Higher risk of failing to invest enough in climate resilience and adaptation||18.2%|
|#29||Sharp erosion of global decarbonization efforts||4.6%|
As a result of the more immediate concerns, sustainability may take a back seat. But with environmental issues considered the biggest global risk this year, these delayed investments and missed climate targets could put the Earth further behind on action.
Which Risks Are of the Greatest Concern?
The risk analysts were also asked which of these risks they considered to be of the greatest concern for the world. The responses to this metric varied, with societal and geopolitical factors taking on more importance.
In particular, concerns around another disease outbreak weighed highly at 40.1%, and tighter cross-border movement came in at 34%.
On the bright side, many experts are also looking to this recovery trajectory as an opportunity for a “great reset” of our global systems.
This is a virus that doesn’t respect borders: it crosses borders. And as long as it is in full strength in any part of the world, it’s affecting everybody else. So it requires global cooperation to deal with it.
——Gita Gopinath, IMF Chief Economist
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