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Market Complexity Could Trigger the Next Crash

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How Market Complexity Could Trigger the Next Crash

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:

1. Diverse
System actors have different points of view. (i.e. bullish, bearish, long, short, leveraged, non-leveraged, etc.)

2. Connected
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.)

3. Interaction
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:

Record-Low Volatility
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.

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Which Asian Economies Have the Most Sustainable Trade Policies?

The Sustainable Trade Index ranks 19 Asian economies and the U.S. across three categories of trade sustainability.

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Which Asian Economies Have the Most Sustainable Trade Policies?

To say that Asia has benefited from international trade is an understatement. By opening its economies to the rest of the world, the region has become a leading exporter in many of today’s most important industries.

Trade has also improved Asia’s quality of life, lifting over one billion people out of poverty since 1990. Without the proper controls, however, such rapid growth could have harmful effects on Asia’s environment and society.

In this infographic from The Hinrich Foundation, we break down the results of their 2020 Sustainable Trade Index (STI). Since 2016, this index has ranked 19 Asian economies and the U.S. across three categories of trade sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.

What Exactly is Sustainable Trade?

International trade is an important source of economic growth, enabling domestic businesses to expand, reach new customers, and gain exposure to foreign markets.

At the same time, countries that focus too heavily on exports put themselves at greater long-term risk. For example, an aggressive expansion into manufacturing is likely to impair the quality of a country’s air, while overdependence on a single product or sector can create an economy that is susceptible to demand shocks.

“The primary principle which underpins sustainable trade is balance. Trade cannot be pursued solely for economic gains, without considering environmental and social outcomes.”
– Merle A. Hinrich

Thus, sustainable trade supports not only economic growth, but also environmental protection and strengthened social capital. It involves finding a balance between short-term incentives and long-term resilience.

Measuring Sustainable Trade

The Sustainable Trade Index (STI) is based on three underlying pillars of trade sustainability. Every economy in the STI receives a score between 0 and 100 for each pillar.

PillarNumber of IndicatorsExamples of Indicators
Economic pillar21
  • Use of trade tariffs
  • Logistics performance
  • Growth in labor force
Social pillar12
  • Level of economic inequality
  • Presence of child labor
  • Educational attainment
Environmental pillar14
  • Level of air pollution
  • Reliance on natural resources
  • Environmental standards

The economic pillar measures a country’s ability to to grow its economy through trade, while the social pillar measures a population’s tolerance for trade expansion, given the costs and benefits of economic growth.

Last but not least, the environmental pillar measures a country’s proficiency at managing climate-related risks. Individual pillar scores are then aggregated to arrive at an overall ranking, which also has a maximum possible score of 100.

The Sustainable Trade Index 2020: Overall Rankings

For the first time in the STI’s history, Japan and South Korea have tied for first place. Both countries have placed in the top five previously, but 2020 marks the first time for either to take the top spot.

RankEconomyOverall Score
1 (tied)🇯🇵 Japan75.1
1 (tied)🇰🇷 South Korea75.1
3🇸🇬 Singapore70.2
4🇭🇰 Hong Kong68.3
5🇹🇼 Taiwan67.0
6🇺🇸 U.S.66.2
7🇨🇳 China56.5
8🇵🇭 Philippines55.9
🌏 Average55.1
9🇹🇭 Thailand50.5
10🇱🇰 Sri Lanka50.4
11🇲🇾 Malaysia49.5
12🇧🇩 Bangladesh49.4
13🇧🇳 Brunei48.5
14🇰🇭 Cambodia47.8
15 (tied)🇮🇳 India46.9
15 (tied)🇻🇳 Vietnam46.9
17🇮🇩 Indonesia46.3
18🇱🇦 Laos46.1
19🇵🇰 Pakistan43.9
20🇲🇲 Myanmar40.3

Advanced economies like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were also strong performers, each scoring in the high 60s. At the other end of the spectrum, developing countries such as India and Vietnam were tightly packed within the 40 to 50 range.

To learn more, here’s how each country performed in the three underlying pillars.

1. Economic Pillar Rankings

Hong Kong topped the economic pillar for the first time thanks to its low trade costs and well-developed financial sector. Financial services have increased their contribution to Hong Kong’s GDP from 13% in 2004 to 20% in 2018.

The region’s recently initiated national security law—which has resulted in greater political instability—may have a negative effect on future rankings.

RankEconomyEconomic Score
1🇭🇰 Hong Kong69.6
2🇸🇬 Singapore68.7
3🇨🇳 China64.9
4🇰🇷 South Korea63.3
5 (tied)🇲🇾 Malaysia61.2
5 (tied)🇺🇸 U.S.61.2
7🇹🇼 Taiwan60.3
8🇧🇳 Brunei59.3
9 (tied)🇯🇵 Japan58.6
9 (tied)🇵🇭 Philippines58.6
🌏 Average56.9
11🇧🇩 Bangladesh56.3
12🇰🇭 Cambodia56
13🇱🇰 Sri Lanka54.7
14🇻🇳 Vietnam53.9
15🇮🇩 Indonesia52.1
16🇮🇳 India51.4
17🇲🇲 Myanmar49.5
18🇹🇭 Thailand47.4
19🇵🇰 Pakistan46.9
20🇱🇦 Laos44.0 

China was also a strong performer, climbing to third for the first time. Asia’s largest economy benefits from a well-diversified group of trading partners, meaning it doesn’t rely too heavily on a single market.

The bottom five countries—India (16th), Myanmar (17th), Thailand (18th), Pakistan (19th) and Laos (20th)—suffered from issues such as payment risk, which is measured as the difficulty of getting money in and out of a country. This risk is especially damaging to trade because it discourages foreign direct investment.

2. Social Pillar Rankings

The social pillar features the highest average score, but also the largest gap from top to bottom. This gap has expanded over recent years, growing from 43.9 points in 2018 to 52.3 in 2020.

RankEconomySocial Score
1🇹🇼 Taiwan88
2🇯🇵 Japan87.3
3🇰🇷 South Korea86.9
4🇺🇸 U.S.83.1
5🇸🇬 Singapore63.1
6🇵🇭 Philippines62.4
7🇹🇭 Thailand60.9
🌏 Average59.1
8🇭🇰 Hong Kong57.8
9🇧🇩 Bangladesh55.8
10🇲🇾 Malaysia53.6
11🇱🇦 Laos53.0
12🇮🇳 India52.5
13🇮🇩 Indonesia52.4
14🇧🇳 Brunei51.6
15🇻🇳 Vietnam50.4
16🇨🇳 China50.2
17🇰🇭 Cambodia46.2
18🇱🇰 Sri Lanka46.1
19🇵🇰 Pakistan45.6
20🇲🇲 Myanmar35.7

Taiwan claimed the top spot for the second time, solidifying its reputation as Asia’s leader in human capital development. It performed well in the educational attainment indicator, with 93.6% of its population receiving a tertiary education.

China, despite its success in other pillars, only managed 16th. This was partly due to the effects of its now defunct one-child policy, which has been responsible for creating gender imbalances and a shrinking population.

3. Environmental Pillar Rankings

The environmental pillar has the lowest average score of the three. Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea were the only countries to score above 75.

RankEconomyEnvironmental Score
1🇯🇵 Japan80.0
2🇸🇬 Singapore78.7
3🇭🇰 Hong Kong77.4
4🇰🇷 South Korea75.2
5🇨🇳 China54.5
6🇺🇸 U.S.54.3
7🇹🇼 Taiwan52.8
8🇱🇰 Sri Lanka50.4
🌏 Average49.1
9🇵🇭 Philippines46.6
10🇹🇭 Thailand43.2
11🇰🇭 Cambodia41.2
12🇱🇦 Laos41.1
13🇵🇰 Pakistan39.3
14🇮🇳 India36.7
15🇻🇳 Vietnam36.3
16🇧🇩 Bangladesh36.0
17🇲🇲 Myanmar35.6
18🇧🇳 Brunei34.6
19🇮🇩 Indonesia34.3
20🇲🇾 Malaysia33.8

The top four performed well in areas such as air quality and water pollution, and with the exception of Hong Kong, have all introduced carbon pricing schemes in the past decade. This doesn’t mean these countries are without their flaws, however.

Land-constrained Singapore, for instance, ranked 16th in the deforestation indicator. The city-state is one of the densest population centers in the world, and has cut down forests to clear space for further settlement and urbanization.

Building Back Better From COVID-19

Despite the damage that COVID-19 has caused, there are some silver linings. This includes the environmental benefits experienced by China, where lockdowns reduced carbon emissions by 200 million tonnes in a single month. It’s been estimated that after two months, China’s reduced pollution levels saved the lives of 77,000 people.

These temporary improvements are an explicit reminder of the environmental and social costs associated with economic growth. In response, governments in Asia are taking steps to ensure the long-term sustainability of their nations. Japan and South Korea both announced their commitments to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, while China set a similar goal for 2060.

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Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Ocean shipping is the primary mode of international trade. This map identifies maritime choke points that pose a risk to this complex logistic network.

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maritime choke points

Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Maritime transport is an essential part of international trade—approximately 80% of global merchandise is shipped via sea.

Because of its importance, commercial shipping relies on strategic trade routes to move goods efficiently. These waterways are used by thousands of vessels a year—but it’s not always smooth sailing. In fact, there are certain points along these routes that pose a risk to the whole system.

Here’s a look at the world’s most vulnerable maritime bottlenecks—also known as choke points—as identified by GIS.

What’s a Choke Point?

Choke points are strategic, narrow passages that connect two larger areas to one another. When it comes to maritime trade, these are typically straits or canals that see high volumes of traffic because of their optimal location.

Despite their convenience, these vital points pose several risks:

  • Structural risks: As demonstrated in the recent Suez Canal blockage, ships can crash along the shore of a canal if the passage is too narrow, causing traffic jams that can last for days.
  • Geopolitical risks: Because of their high traffic, choke points are particularly vulnerable to blockades or deliberate disruptions during times of political unrest.

The type and degree of risk varies, depending on location. Here’s a look at some of the biggest threats, at eight of the world’s major choke points.

maritime choke point risks

Because of their high risk, alternatives for some of these key routes have been proposed in the past—for instance, in 2013 Nicaraguan Congress approved a $40 billion dollar project proposal to build a canal that was meant to rival the Panama Canal.

As of today, it has yet to materialize.

A Closer Look: Key Maritime Choke Points

Despite their vulnerabilities, these choke points remain critical waterways that facilitate international trade. Below, we dive into a few of the key areas to provide some context on just how important they are to global trade.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is a lock-type canal that provides a shortcut for ships traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Ships sailing between the east and west coasts of the U.S. save over 8,000 nautical miles by using the canal—which roughly shortens their trip by 21 days.

In 2019, 252 million long tons of goods were transported through the Panama Canal, which generated over $2.6 billion in tolls.

The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is an Egyptian waterway that connects Europe to Asia. Without this route, ships would need to sail around Africa, which would add approximately seven days to their trips. In 2019, nearly 19,000 vessels, and 1 billion tons of cargo, traveled through the Suez Canal.

In an effort to mitigate risk, the Egyptian government embarked on a major expansion project for the canal back in 2015. But, given the recent blockage caused by a Taiwanese container ship, it’s clear that the waterway is still vulnerable to obstruction.

The Strait of Malacca

At its smallest point, the Strait of Malacca is approximately 1.5 nautical miles, making it one of the world’s narrowest choke points. Despite its size, it’s one of Asia’s most critical waterways, since it provides a critical connection between China, India, and Southeast Asia. This choke point creates a risky situation for the 130,000 or so ships that visit the Port of Singapore each year.

The area is also known to have problems with piracy—in 2019, there were 30 piracy incidents, according to private information group ReCAAP ISC.

The Strait of Hormuz

Controlled by Iran, the Strait of Hormuz links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, ultimately draining into the Arabian Sea. It’s a primary vein for the world’s oil supply, transporting approximately 21 million barrels per day.

Historically, it’s also been a site of regional conflict. For instance, tankers and commercial ships were attacked in that area during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is another primary waterway for the world’s oil and natural gas. Nestled between Africa and the Middle East, the critical route connects the Mediterranean Sea (via the Suez Canal) to the Indian Ocean.

Like the Strait of Malacca, it’s well known as a high-risk area for pirate attacks. In May 2020, a UK chemical tanker was attacked off the coast of Yemen–the ninth pirate attack in the area that year.

Due to the strategic nature of the region, there is a strong military presence in nearby Djibouti, including China’s first ever foreign military base.

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