Just what the heck are black swans and what do I do if I see one?

Black swan events are rare and unpredictable happenings that have a severe impact on various systems, including economies. Coined by former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan, these events have three key characteristics: (1) they are highly improbable, (2) they have a massive impact, and (3) in hindsight, they seem predictable. One thing is certain: Black swan events will continue to occur. When it comes to the electrical economy, Black Swan events can disrupt distributors, manufacturers, and contractors in significant ways.

Recent examples of black swan events that shook the electrical economy and forced changes in the way we do business are the global financial crisis (2007-08), when the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in the United States triggered a worldwide financial crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic (2019-current) continues to have far-reaching consequences on many sectors including the electrical economy. Military actions like the invasion of Ukraine (2022-present), and the impacts of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (2001) are still felt today. Environmental change is causing severe weather events that can be considered black swans, often on a more localized basis, with frequently devastating consequences. These disruptions and others have affected our electrical economy in a variety of ways.

  • Supply chain disruption: Black swan events can disrupt global supply chains, causing delays or interruptions in the delivery of electrical components and equipment. For example, natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes can damage manufacturing facilities and transportation infrastructure, leading to a shortage of electrical products. This disruption can affect distributors’ ability to source and distribute products, as well as disrupt manufacturers’ production capabilities.
  • Market volatility and political uncertainty: Black swan events often trigger extreme market volatility, which can have financial implications for all stakeholders in the electrical economy. For instance, stock markets may experience sharp declines, affecting the valuation of electrical manufacturing companies and distributors as well as copper and other raw materials. The uncertainty associated with black swan events can lead to fluctuations in demand and investment decisions, impacting the financial stability and growth prospects of these businesses.
  • Decreased demand: Depending on the nature of the black swan event, there may be a significant decrease in demand for electrical products and services. For example, during economic recessions or widespread crises, consumer and business spending often decline, leading to reduced demand for new electrical installations or upgrades. This decrease in demand can negatively impact manufacturers, distributors, and contractors, resulting in reduced revenue and potentially layoffs or business closures.
  • Shift in priorities: Black swan events can cause a shift in priorities and resource allocation. For instance, in the aftermath of a natural disaster, governments and organizations might prioritize rebuilding infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and housing, over electrical projects. This shift in priorities can lead to delayed or canceled projects, impacting manufacturers, distributors, and contractors who were relying on those projects for business opportunities.
  • Regulatory changes: Black swan events can trigger changes in regulations and policies, which can have significant implications for the electrical industry. Governments might introduce new safety standards or regulations to mitigate risks associated with specific events, such as stricter building codes after a major earthquake. Manufacturers, distributors, and contractors would need to adapt their operations, products, and services to comply with these new regulations, potentially requiring additional investments and adjustments – which would benefit the electrical industry.
  • Increased focus on resilience: Black swan events often highlight vulnerabilities within the electrical infrastructure and the need for increased resilience. Governments and organizations may invest more in improving the resilience of electrical systems, such as upgrading transmission and distribution networks or implementing backup power solutions. This increased focus on resilience can create new business opportunities for manufacturers, distributors, and contractors specialized in providing resilient solutions.

It’s important to note that the specific impact of black swan events can vary depending on the nature of the event, the region affected, and the overall resilience of the electrical economy. Different stakeholders may experience varying degrees of disruption and recovery based on their preparedness, adaptability, and ability to access resources. Preparing for black swan events is inherently challenging due to their unpredictable nature. However, there are certain steps that can be taken to enhance preparedness and resilience.

  • Scenario planning: Engage in scenario planning exercises and brainstorming to identify potential black swan events and their possible impacts. This allows organizations and individuals to develop contingency plans and strategies for various scenarios.
  • Diversification: Diversify investments, resources, and operations to reduce vulnerability to a single point of failure. This can involve spreading investments across different sectors, diversifying supply chains, and having backup systems in place.
  • Risk assessment and mitigation: Conduct thorough risk assessments to identify vulnerabilities and implement measures to mitigate them. This can include strengthening cybersecurity, ensuring robust emergency response plans, and implementing effective risk management practices.
  • Building resilience: Foster a culture of resilience by promoting adaptability, flexibility, and agility. This can involve training employees to handle unexpected situations, promoting innovative thinking, and establishing effective communication channels.
  • Collaborative networks: Build strong relationships and networks with stakeholders, including government agencies, industry peers, and community organizations. Collaborative efforts can enhance information sharing, resource pooling, and coordinated responses during a crisis.
  • Continuous learning and monitoring: Stay informed about emerging trends, technological advancements, and potential risks. Regularly review and update preparedness plans based on new information and lessons learned from past events.
  • Financial preparedness: Maintain adequate financial reserves and insurance coverage to withstand the financial impact of black swan events. This can provide a buffer during times of economic disruption and aid in the recovery process.

While it is impossible to fully predict or prevent black swan events, these proactive measures can help individuals and organizations be more resilient, adaptive, and better prepared to navigate the uncertainties and challenges that may arise. Understanding your market is crucial to withstanding unpredictable events. DISC Corp. can help you prepare and strategize by defining your current market and meshing with your scenarios.