Last year, we became acquainted with the concept of "black swans," those unforeseen calamities that tend to spring upon us at inopportune moments throwing everyone and everything into a tizzy. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan for example. Permit me to postulate three black swans that could occur in 2012.
The first is a fiscal calamity in Washington as our legislators return from a holiday break. At last report, they had, under duress, enacted a two month extension of the payroll tax cut and spending authority which is about to run out. There is no easy way out of this fiscal morass, and there is no reason to believe this bunch is capable of making the tough decisions that are needed. But if they don't do something halfway credible, we can be looking at further downgrades of our credit rating that could lead to rising interest rates, the last thing we need as our economy struggles to shake off the recessionary blues.
The second would be that the recession in Europe could be much worse than most people seem to think, causing a major disruption of cross Atlantic trade and reducing U.S. exports. Our friends in Europe already had a combustible cocktail of a recession, untenable sovereign debt, continued bank illiquidity and a downgrade of credit worthiness. Now it has been hit with a downgrade of the EU bailout fund and it looks like we will see a messy Greek sovereign debt default. This situation could easily lop off 2 percentage points from the EU's growth this year.
And third -- this is the really scary one -- the Iranians could precipitate a military confrontation that could lead to closure of the Strait of Hormuz, that narrow 34 mile wide conduit from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. Every day 14 oil tankers carrying 17 million barrels of oil transverse it bearing 35 percent of all seaborne oil, 20 percent of volume traded on world markets. Disrupting that traffic could make oil prices explode to $150 a barrel or more and have a devastating impact on the world economy.
The experts assure us that the Iranians would never carry out their threats to block the Strait of Hormuz because they need it to export their oil. But it is always risky to engage in brinksmanship with unstable entities like the government in Teheran where various political blocs are competing for power amid growing economic and social turmoil. History teaches that crises like this often provoke unstable governments to foment foreign conflict to allay discontent at home. And without question, the U.S. is Iran's Public Enemy #1.
One more thing. It used to be accepted doctrine that the U.S. Navy would never send an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf because it would be vulnerable to shore-based rocket attacks. When the first Iraq War, Operation Desert Storm, broke out, that doctrine went out the window. Today we routinely post carrier groups in the gulf. But there is none there now and the Iranians have threatened to attack if we send in another one. The Obama Administration will probably call that bluff. If so, let's hope it is a bluff.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. You can quote from this with attribution. Let me know if you want to talk to Jerry.
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