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Black swan turns white on US debt default probability

We humans, as author, mathematician and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb observes, “lack imagination to the point of not even knowing what tomorrow’s important things will look like.”

That is unless we’re talking about Asia’s view of the battle underway on Capitol Hill over the US deficit.

Taleb, famous for his 2007 bestseller “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, argues this threat is hiding in plain sight. The “white swan” about which Taleb warns is a “spiral” as the US debt tops US$34 trillion and lawmakers gamble with Washington’s last AAA credit rating.

In November, Moody’s Investors Service warned it might yank away America’s only remaining top rating. That followed three months after Fitch Ratings downgraded the US to AA+ as Republicans and Democrats brawled over funding the government.

“The risk is right in front of us,” Taleb told an investment forum last week. “If you see a fragile bridge, you know it’s going to collapse at some point.” Taleb adds that “we need something to come in from the outside, or maybe some kind of miracle.”

Yet miracles seem in short supply as US fiscal priorities favor continued expansion. On Wednesday (February 7), the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said the deficit will continue to climb over the next decade, ensuring that interest payments, already a record share of government spending, become an even bigger challenge for lawmakers and burden to America’s bottom line.

The CBO sees deficits jumping to $2.6 trillion in 2034 from US$1.6 trillion this year. Today, the gap is 5.6% of gross domestic product (GDP); by 2025, it’s seen increasing to 6.1%. “The primary deficits in the CBO’s projections are especially large given the relatively low