Pricing Political Risk

25 February 2016


David Cameron wants to keep Britain in the EU, and negotiated a deal with the EU to this end, but the deal undermines the EU, so that the EU is weakened regardless of the referendum outcome.

David Cameron wants to keep Britain in the EU, and negotiated a deal with the EU to this end, but the deal undermines the EU, so that the EU is weakened regardless of the referendum outcome.

The inability of the financial sector to price political risk is being made painfully clear by the “Brexit” situation and what it portends for Europe, for the EU, and for global finance. Now, “Brexit” is an unlovely neologism — much like “Grexit,” from which I believe it derives, both being conjunctions of the names of nation-states with the word “exit,” meaning an exit from the Eurozone, and, symbolically, ouster from Europe, the European project, the European idea — but I will employ it anyway, as it has rapidly become the convention.

It is important to observe that there are no good outcomes for the Eurozone in the wake of the British referendum on Brexit. If Cameron gets his way and Britain retains its EU membership, it will maintain this membership under specially negotiated terms, which demonstrates unambiguously that all members of the EU are equal, but some are more equal than others. If the British people vote against the deal and Britain voluntarily secedes from the EU, it will mean that one of the strongest economies in the EU, including the fabled banking center of London, have chosen to leave the EU, like the first rat leaving a sinking ship.

It isn’t just Britain and Brexit, of course. There is the lingering aftermath of the financial crisis, which began with the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US, spread contagion-like to Europe, but was never resolved satisfactorily because of the financial difficulties of southern European nation-states like Italy and Spain, but especially Greece. Decisive and definitive action to reform Europe’s banking sector could not be pushed through under these circumstances, and now these unresolved problems are manifesting in unexpected and unintended ways due to the refugee crisis in Europe.

I am not predicting financial collapse in Europe, nor I am predicting social collapse in Europe; nor I am predicting large scale social turmoil. Europe is a very civilized place; the Europeans, by and large (and after spending hundreds of years killing each other), understand that it is in their interest to maintain economically, politically, and socially stable societies in which as many citizens as possible can live stable and prosperous lives. The approximately 500 million people in the EU are not going to suddenly shutter their shops, close their businesses, and stop buying things. Business as usual will continue, with interruptions and disruptions. Europe is, however, facing an existential crisis every bit as momentous as the Civil War that tested American unity as a nation-state. The basis of unity is distinct, and the test is distinct, but the danger is parallel.

We all know that, in cases of warfare, violent revolution, or even extreme social turmoil, that a financial position can unwind with shocking rapidity, leaving investors (typically, those investors slowest to respond to the crisis) holding the bag. The combination of financial ruin and the suddenness of its occurrence can be too much for some, and this is when we see people jumping out of windows rather than facing life as impoverished has-beens. It is no surprise that financial traumas of this kind, that emerge not from predictable market forces, but from human, all-too-human events, driven by emotion, passion, and and what Keynes called animal spirits, are put behind the market as quickly as possible, as the survivors go about the again-predictable business of picking up the pieces and going on with life.

Investment advisers like to tell potential investors that “market timing” is irrelevant, and that a prudent and long-term investor will consider market spikes and dips as somehow too petty to notice, almost beneath contempt. But if you invest your life’s savings in something as stable as bonds (like the investors in WPPSS, the Washington Public Power Supply System) or even in the very corporation that employs you (as with Enron employees who were actively encouraged to invest everything in Enron stock), and these apparently stable investment vehicles go sour due to reasons that have little to do with investment strategies, there is nothing left over to get back into the market. Yes, of course, the market will recover again, in time. By that time your retirement may be long over and you will have lived your final years in poverty before dying penniless. In the big picture such instances of individual suffering are unimportant and irrelevant, but to the individual who loses everything, it is everything.

This investment advice to disregard market timing is a rationalization and justification of the inability of the financial sector to price political risk. Political risk is a blindspot for finance capital, and as the world becomes more economically and politically integrated, this blindspot is becoming a serious stumbling block both to understanding and to action.

We have good economic models to describe how even complex industrialized economies function. But an economic model of a society is only a partial model of society. Sometimes business as usual continues even as a society is disrupted by political and social unrest (like the growing US economy despite Civil Rights protests in the 1960s and Vietnam war protests in the 1970s), but sometimes political and social unrest can cross a threshold beyond which business as usual ceases and the political and social unrest become the focus of all attention and business as usual does not recommence until the turmoil is resolved and business begins again under changed circumstances, sometimes even under changed institutions (as happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union).

A more complete model of society would include social and political factors in a way that the social sciences have not yet been able to pull off. At the end of this process would be a model of civilization itself, including economic, political, social, religious, and other factors. I have often pointed out that we lack a science of civilization, and the financial blindspot in pricing political risk is a perfect practical example of what it means to be without a model of civilization.

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