The disintegration of globalisation is a path the world has walked down before, according to Professor Stephen Kotkin, and while there are lessons we can learn from previous exposures the most pressing for investors is that a fundamental shift in the way we assess risk is needed.

Speaking on a podcast hosted by editor Amanda White recently, Kotkin – a Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University – said the measurement of risk during normal times doesn’t work during abnormal times.

“Our risk assessments are smart, they’re thorough and they’re improving, but they generally regard the kind of events we’ve been experiencing as black swans,” he said.

Contemporary risk models view everything that upends them as a black swan, he says, which is a problem. When black swan events – such as the recent pandemic – occur regularly it indicates the risk models themselves are part of the problem.

To mitigate the issue, Kotkin argues, we need to take more seriously the “dynamic, non-linear, complex interactions”. That is the events that aren’t predictable, stable or easily discernible.

“They’re very, very difficult, almost impossible to model, which is one of the reasons we can’t pay enough attention to them,” he says.

Listen to the full podcast, ‘Is this the end of globalisation?’ featuring Professor Stephen Kotkin below:

Kotkin says there is “tremendous work” being done in biology and physics around how small changes in one part of a system can precipitate large and delayed effects in another part of the system. These findings are only now being transposed onto economics, he adds.

He gives the example of meteorologists, who have a great understanding of the difficulty in predictability.

“They talk about the climate ‘weirding’, getting weirder and more extreme,’ he describes. “They don’t talk about a linear progress… they talk about it moving in many directions at once.”

The uncomfortable truth for economists and investors, he explains, is that they need to move away from financial data and seek more adaptive systems.

“There are just tremendous amounts of single points of failure,” he says. “And if you can’t model systemic risk very easily it’s very hard to work it into your portfolios.”

Globalisation’s second death

The need for investors to factor ‘the unknown’ into risk models is heightened due to the disintegration of globalisation, Kotkin argues, yet there are lessons from the past we can leverage.

Kotkin points to the first half of the twentieth century, when a long period of increasing globalisation was torn asunder by the Spanish flu pandemic, two world wars, anti-immigration sentiment and the great depression.

“The first globalisation ended very badly,” he says. “You’d have to say it was a failed experiment.”

Now, we can learn from history.

“There has been an attempt to learn from that first era of globalisation,” he says. “Back in 1914, 1918 they couldn’t take any examples from the past.”

We’re also much better equipped to recover from the breakdown of globalisation, he explains. Science has come a long way and there are much more democratic countries with a deeper sense of responsibility, better tools and greater awareness.

Globalisation will remain fragile, however, because it is based on an awkward paradox; far reaching and embedded connectedness with relatively arbitrary and insufficient oversight.

“There’s very deep, far reaching integration and interdependence and very shallow global governance mechanisms,” he says, “There’s nothing that is commensurate with the level of integration and interdependence that we have.”

The fate of globalisation is not as dark as it seems, Kotkin says. It blew up before and came back, and there is no reason to doubt that it has the potential to do so again.

“I think we can imagine a future in which globalisation unwinds in the short and potentially medium-term but does not vanish altogether, and maybe comes back strong,” he says.

For long-term investors, the professor believes the fundamental principles remain the same.

“It’s about investing where the governance is strong, where the values are good, where the human capital is excellent and where the infrastructure is good or getting better,” he says. “These are not secrets – these are things we understand.”


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One comment on “Globalisation’s second death and the ‘weirding’ of investment risk”

    For a better understanding of the problems that arise out of complex, dynamic, adaptive systems then follow the work of the Santa Fe Institute. They’ve been looking at the implications of this stuff in economics almost as long as the physicists and biologists have.

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