Clem Sunter

Three foxy lessons from Superstorm Sandy

2012-10-31 13:45

Clem Sunter

Sandy, the current near-perfect storm engulfing the north-eastern states of America, has quite a few messages which Chantell Ilbury and I have been trying to get across in the three books we have written together on foxes:

1. However powerful you are, there will always be events that are way beyond your control. Your only choice is in terms of the type, quality and swiftness of your response. How many people a month ago would have believed me if I had predicted that the financial centre of the United States - New York - plus a host of other cities in the region would be shut down with empty streets, offices and shops. Foxes take dramatic action when it is required. They do not compromise when so many lives are at stake. They know precisely what they do and do not control. Above all, they recognise a problem when there is one.

2. However good a prophet you are, there will always be "black swan" occurrences that are unknown unknowns i.e things you don't know you don't know until they happen. All you can do is be a foxy script-writer and capture the possibility in very broad terms in an imaginative scenario; then work out a contingency plan and maybe carry out simulation exercises with all the players involved; then act on the plan when the possibility in whatever form materialises. It is much better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong. You will never capture the future exactly. Foxes aim to be vaguely right, knowing that they will make some mistakes along the way which will serve as a learning experience for the next occasion.

3. Wherever possible, you should have a system of flags in place indicating the onset of a particular scenario and its probable evolution. In the case of hurricanes and tsunamis, the work has been done and the necessary sensory devices have been installed. Foxes will continuously upgrade their evaluation of an event using the information as it comes in and adapt their tactics as and when the need arises. Unfortunately in man-made situations like the debt crisis in the Euro-zone countries and in the United States itself, there is no map that can be shown on television indicating the progress of the storm and whether it is waxing or waning. Nevertheless, as best as you can, you have to develop substitute radar systems which can track an economic or political crisis and give you an intuitive feel of its range of consequences. Foxes are known for their bright eyes and quick instincts as regards the rising and falling of the flags. They are ahead of the herd in their response.

Americans have a growing respect for Mother Nature, particularly after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. They are getting better at handling natural disasters and cleaning up afterwards. I wonder whether they realise that the "fiscal cliff" they face at the beginning of the new year when national budget cuts are either imposed in a preset formulaic manner or agreed upon in a consensual manner by both houses in Congress poses an even greater danger to the country's future than any natural disaster. If there was a map devised by the economic equivalent of weather forecasters showing the potential extent of the "fiscal cliff", it would cover the entire United States. Superstorm Sandy is a minor event by comparison.

Solely relying on The Fed to print extra dollars is not like emptying the streets. Indeed, it could even aggravate the storm! As I said, foxes recognise a problem when there is one. They do not ignore it and behave like it will just go away. They confront it as best they can with the resources they have at their disposal.

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