Where in the world is the biggest risk?

May 14, 2009, 7:01 PM UTC

Lots of people are now seeing light at the end of the global recession, but it pays to keep the dark clouds in sight. My Fortune colleague Shawn Tully does that in his just-published story about Ireland. As he notes, Ireland’s economy is suffering the deepest plunge of virtually any country outside of Iceland. And it’s not over yet.

To get a broader view of global risk, I called Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group. Bremmer is an expert on geopolitical risk around the world, and his firm advises lots of well-known companies including Citigroup , NYSE Euronext , and PricewaterhouseCoopers. I don’t know Bremmer well, but when I saw him speak at a launch party for his new book,
The Fat Tail
, I was impressed with his finesse at describing a world at greater risk than ever in our lifetimes. Sallie Krawcheck, the former Citi exec who hosted the party for Bremmer and co-author Preston Keat, connected us. And we talked about danger and opportunity around the world. Here are excerpts from my chat with Bremmer:

What are fat tails?
Fat tails are one-in-100-year storms that increasingly happen every 15 minutes. They are extreme outcomes that normally you wouldn’t have to worry about.

Do thin tails become fat tails?
Yes. You had all these risks – thin tails – before the financial crisis hit. Now they’re fat tails.

Like what?
If you‘re an investor in Russia, six months ago you didn’t have to worry too much about that country going hard-authoritarian. That’s something that you now have to worry about.

What should investors in Russia watch for?
Public disagreements between liberals and hard-liners on policy. Social discontent in the rural regions.

You list 10 fat tails. How likely are they to happen?
These are not all things that we think are going to happen. But I would bet that a couple of them will happen.

Which ones are highest on your “likely” list?
Pakistan. I don’t think we’re close to having a failed state, as [Richard] Holbrooke recently said. The Taliban aren’t going to take over. Nukes aren’t going to end up in the hands of terrorists. But radicals taking over the tribal regions, combined with the economic crisis, could lead to enough social discontent that the military takes over.

Chances of that?
I’d say 30%.

What would that mean for global investors?
Investors might like it, short-term. It would lead to temporary stability. But this would not be a happy situation for the long-term stability of the region. It would mean more fractious relations with India and a constraint on Pakistan’s economic reform long-term. Military takeovers tend to be buffers against the worst scenarios, but also against the best scenarios.

Can fat tails be positive in the long term?
Yes. Political risk is not necessarily about things that can blow you up. Take Argentina. The fat tail there is actually an opportunity. The global recession is undermining the economy, and the government can’t handle the fallout well. As poll numbers continue to fall, you could see the President [Christina Fernandez de Kirchner] lose the election in June, and the Kirchners could be out. If the current Vice President [Julio Cobos] comes in as President, there will be much less state intervention in the markets, more openness in agriculture, and an improvement in market sentiment.

Resilience is more critical than ever—for people and countries. What countries look most resilient?
The U.S. is not going to lead the world out of the crisis. China will. It’s important to recognize that China didn’t have a banking crisis. There was a financial crisis in less than half the world, and there is a global recession. China has had an economic downturn. But China has put a massive stimulus in place. And they’ll come out of this fast.

Who else is resilient?
The Persian Gulf countries. They’re helped by small populations, cheap access to natural resources, and cohesive governments that can deal with a downturn. Brazil and Indonesia also have cohesive governments, which helps.

What about India?
Interestingly, India benefits from its decentralized government. The government is not being blamed for India’s economic problems—and that’s an advantage.

My Fortune colleague Shawn Tully just wrote a story about Ireland on the edge. How scary it is to see developed countries at risk of default this year. How do you see risk in Europe right now?
We’ll see very anemic growth there for a long time. I’m not an expert on default risk. But I will say, there’s increasingly more stability in the system. We’re no longer at risk of broad contagion.

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, you wrote an op-ed that said Gordon Brown might not survive as Britain’s prime minister. What are the chances that he’ll be out this year?
I think it’s 50-50, honestly. There’s a real possibility. He’s not going to go easily. The underlying situation has gotten so bad that a strong conservative leadership – or any strong leadership – would be better than they have now. Britain should be one of the strongest supporters of the U.S. on collective security and climate change. But right now, Britain is in absolute nowhere-land.

Any more power shifts you care to talk about?
Everyone talks about Wall Street vs. Main Street. K Street has taken over both. New York used to be the financial capital. Now Washington is. Washington will determine who’s a winner and who’s a loser. Power has shifted from Dubai, the financial capital of the UAE, to Abu Dhabi. From Shanghai to Beijing. Mumbai to Delhi. The state is the principle economic actor. It’s a repudiation of the free-market system around the world.

Sounds like the end of capitalism.
It’s a problem for investors and for the robustness of economic growth. This system isn’t as efficient as the free market is.