Hunt for Black Swans May Just Be Getting Started

Black Swan
Ann Cameron | Flickr Open | Getty Images

Consider chief financial officers as the ones manning the front lines in the battle against black swans.

Expecting the unexpected has never been more important in Corporate America since the financial crisis sneaked through the ether five years ago and nearly destroyed the U.S. economy.

Even now, after all the retrospection that has occurred since, deciphering what will cause the next crisis remains a dicey pursuit.

"Almost by definition if you can name it, it's probably not a black swan," said Mike Carruthers, CFO at Array BioPharma, a Boulder, Colo.-based drug developer. "You might argue, is it really on a risk-adjusted net present value basis worth your time and money to worry about a true black swan event? But there's a lot of gray stuff in between."

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The term "black swan" entered the Wall Street vernacular due largely to a book by the same name written by Nassim N. Taleb. In the strictest sense, a black swan is something completely unexpected, dismissed simply because it hadn't been seen before.

So a lot of the usual suspects that could cause market and economic turmoil don't qualify, primarily because they receive so much attention. This category would include the debt and deficit impasse in Washington, the European sovereign debt burden, and economic turbulence in China.

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Market and corporate leaders, in fact, have become prolific in their predictions of the next crisis.

"There's still some hangover from the last few years, although it's a much-improved environment from, say, 2008 and 2009," Carruthers said.

In his view, one of the potential catalysts for crisis not getting so much attention is education.

Carruthers sees an inefficient system with out-of-control costs that will present huge obstacles to policymakers in the future.

"The cost of education has gone up two and three times that of anything else over the last several decades. It's completely inefficient," he said. "That's a model that's broken, but what do you do about it?"

Among the others he sees are related to government.

The Federal Reserve's zero interest rate policy is a "two-edged sword" that could cause problems once rates have to rise.

Closer to home, he said the Food and Drug Administration has to be proactive in getting products to market, though he said the last six months have seen "a new attitude."

Indeed, the government theme comes up often in conversations with corporate heads. While gridlock has often been seen as a good for markets, they fear too much inertia could thwart any momentum the economy has gained.

"I don't think the government's going to get corporations to spend their cash," said Dave DeBoskey, accounting professor at San Diego State University. "What's holding back corporations is uncertainty. That's a classic macroeconomic variable of which CFOs are aware."

A true black swan, though, could be somewhere else in the world.

"Generally speaking, there are a lot of gepolitical pressures out there, China in particular," DeBoskey said. "It's not just macroeconomic policy. It's also geopolitical issues that are tied to international trade and foreign currency. All of those things are just very volatile right now and probably will be more so in the future. That will continue to hold corporations back from their original plans they might have had."

Whatever the unknown holds, CFOs believe they will be on the front lines to head off the looming black swan.

Risk management, in fact, was one nine major challenges the CFO of the future will face, according to a report from the Institute of Management Accountants and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

"The consequential relationship between poor corporate behavior and risk is all too familiar," the report said. "Tomorrow's CFO will be seen as the internal safeguard to a better corporate ethos."