Press Release

Thinking Ahead Institute reveals top fifteen extreme risks for investors

September 9, 2019

LONDON, 9 September 2019 – The Thinking Ahead Institute’s (TAI) Extreme risks 2019 report and ranking 1, which categorises rare events that could have a high impact on global economic growth and asset returns, has a new top three: global temperature change, global trade collapse and cyber warfare.

The extreme risks 2019 ranking saw global temperature change climb to the top spot which covers scenarios where the planet becomes far less habitable. The number two extreme risk is the potential collapse of global trade, driven by the rise of protectionism, primarily due to developments in global politics over the past six years. Joining in third place is cyber warfare. As the world has become ever more connected, the risk of the internet being weaponised has also increased. 

The Thinking Ahead Institute’s top 15 extreme risks ranking for the first time includes: biodiversity collapse, abandonment of fiat money and cyber warfare, while those that have dropped out of the top 15 this year are: deflation, insurance crisis and terrorism. Those that have risen up the rankings this year are infrastructure failure (+8 places), as well as global trade collapse (+3) and currency crisis (+3). According to the report, the extreme risks that are less of a threat than in 2013 include stagnation, which has fallen eight places, as well as resource scarcity which lost top spot by falling three places.

Tim Hodgson, Head of the Thinking Ahead Group, said: “Our extreme risks ranking has seen the emergence of a general trend with financial risks falling down the rankings and non-financial extreme risks growing in significance. Global temperature change becomes the highest ranked risk due to our assessment of higher likelihood coupled with significant impact – in the extreme this would mean mass extinction. 

“We believe that the world is subject to fundamental changes, whether environmental or political which will alter power balances. A complex world can and will deliver extreme outcomes that are hard to imagine when working with a normal distribution. That means extreme events are much more likely than previously thought. To navigate through this complex world, we suggest investors need to be open-minded, avoid concentrated risks, be sensitive to early warning signs, constantly adapt and always prepare for the worst.”

The research suggests, broadly, there are three hedging strategies available to institutions:

Hold cash. Over long historical periods cash has held its real value through both episodes of deflation and inflation but there is no guarantee that this will be the case in the future. 
Derivatives. It is worth mentioning that cost and usefulness are often in opposition. The cost of derivatives protection can often be reduced by specifying more precise conditions – but the more precise the conditions, the greater the chance that they are not exactly met and hence the ‘insurance’ does not pay out. 
Hold a negatively-correlated asset. There is no single asset that will work against all possible bad outcomes. Further, there is no guarantee that the expected performance of the hedge asset will actually transpire in the future event.

Liang Yin, Senior Investment Consultant at the Thinking Ahead Group, said: “I see extreme risks thinking as an exercise for the mind. They remind us that it is naive and dangerous to cling to a single vision about the future. Yes, we do not know what the future holds. But our brains are more than capable of imagining multiple versions of the future. As investors, we are trying to navigate a highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. The scenarios are most effective when they are used, in a deliberately-created interactive environment, to make explicit – and to challenge – assumptions that underpin your investment portfolios or your business strategy.” 

1. A subjective scoring system to derive a ranking of these risks, and the change of ranking reflects a change of view regarding both impact and likelihood of each individual risk. 

Thinking Ahead Institute’s extreme risks rankings over time

 Rank 2019 2013 2011  2009 
1. Global temperature change
Resource scarcity* Depression  Depression
2.  Global trade
Stagnation   Sovereign default  Hyperinflation
3.  Cyber warfare
Global temperature change Hyperinflation  Excessive leverage
4.  Resource scarcity* Depression
Banking crisis  Currency crisis
5.  Currency crisis Global trade collapse Currency crisis  Banking crisis
6.  Depression Banking crisis Climate change  Sovereign default
7.  Infrastructure 
Sovereign default
Political crisis
 Climate change
8. Banking crisis Currency crisis Insurance crisis  Political crisis
9.  Sovereign default Deflation Protectionism  Insurance crisis
10.  Stagnation Health progress backfire Euro break-up  Protectionism
11.  Biodiversity 
Nuclear contamination Resource scarcity  Disunity in Europe
12.  Health progress backfire  Extreme longevity Major war  End of capitalism
13.  Nuclear 
Insurance crisis   End of fiat money  End of fiat money
14.  Abandonment of fiat money
Infrastructure failure  War
15.  Extreme longevity Infrastructure failure
Killer pandemic
 Killer pandemic
*Food/Water/Energy crisis

2019 extreme risks ranking and descriptions**

Rank Risk Description
1. Global temperature change Earth’s climate tips into a less-habitable state 
(hot or cold) 
2. Global trade collapse A worldwide protectionist backlash against 
cross-border trade 
3. Cyber warfare 
Internet being weaponised that causes severe damage to virtual systems vital to the economy and even to hard infrastructure 
4. Resource scarcity* A major shortfall in the supply of food/water/energy
5. Currency crisis  Extreme movement between exchange rates 
6. Depression 
A deep trough in economic output with massive increase in unemployment 
7. Infrastructure failure  An interruption of a major infrastructure network 
8. Banking crisis  Banking activity halts due to lack of liquidity 
9. Sovereign default Non-payment by a major sovereign borrower
10. Stagnation  A prolonged period of little or no economic growth 
11. Biodiversity collapse  A collapse in biodiversity, in which an accelerating number of species decline to extinction
12. Health progress backfire Massive rise in morbidity or mental ill-health, antibiotic resistance 
13. Nuclear contamination
A major nuclear disaster, leading to large radioactivity release and lethal effects
14. Abandonment of fiat money
A complete collapse in trust on governments and governments-backed paper currency
15. Extreme longevity
Significant increase in life expectancy overwhelms support systems
  **Our subjective measure based on the intensity and scope of the impact, the likelihood, and the degree of uncertainty in assessing the risk level.

About the Thinking Ahead Institute

The Thinking Ahead Institute was established in January 2015 and is a global not-for-profit investment research and innovation member group made up of engaged institutional asset owners and service providers committed to changing and improving the investment industry for the benefit of the end saver. It has over 40 members around the world and is an outgrowth of Willis Towers Watson Investments’ Thinking Ahead Group, which was set up in 2002.