Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Predictions for 2012

With countless others offering predictions for the year ahead, I thought I’d take a chance and throw my own projections into the ring. Similar to Byron Wien and Edward Harrison, I mostly selected events that are widely seen as having a low probability (less than 33%) but which I believe hold a greater than 50% chance of occurring.

1) Greece leaves the Euro - As the year progresses the Greek economy continues to contract and unemployment continues to rise, surpassing 50% for youth. This combination of factors offsets attempts to reduce the budget deficit as the country repeatedly misses EU and IMF required targets. Despite potential for further bailouts, the Greek people finally decide the consequences of tied promises outweigh the benefits of remaining in the Euro. Greece defaults on all debts, returning to a heavily depressed drachma.

2) Italy and Spain lose access to credit markets - A Greek default raises concerns about the potential for creditors to face actual losses on EU sovereign debt. The ECB’s measured efforts are not strong enough to overcome fear and concern about future growth in Italy and Spain. Deep recessions take hold in both countries, pushing deficits higher.

3) The Eurozone enters recession - Practically the entire Eurozone falls into recession, including the likes of France and Germany. A deteriorating economic outlook causes deficit estimates to be raised across the board, facilitating credit rating downgrades. Agreements for greater austerity fail to stem the tide and other attempts to kick the can down the road are pursued.

4) China’s GDP growth falls below 7% - As exports to Europe contract, the busting of China’s housing bubble continues unabated. Expectations for massive monetary easing in Europe and the US, along with fear of flare ups in the Middle East sets a floor under energy and food commodity prices. Monetary easing and fiscal stimulus in China are applied too slowly to prevent growth from slowing below the supposedly necessary 8%. (Note: This will be not be considered a hard-landing, which I deem growth below 5%. That may come in 2013, but for 2012 most economists/analysts will be able to maintain expectations of a soft-landing.)

5) Oil prices will spike above $120, finish year below $90 - (Using WTI crude prices, currently ~$102) At some point during the year Iran attempts to block the Strait of Hormuz. Further attempts to overthrown governments in the Middle East, possibly some that only recently gained power, hit the headlines again. Combined with global monetary easing, oil prices will move higher and gasoline will once again hit $4 per gallon in the US. These higher prices will exaggerate the reduction in global demand for other goods and push growth lower. As fears of a global recession take over, oil prices will fall, finishing the year down more than 10%.

6) US enters recession in 2nd half - Despite higher 4th quarter GDP in 2011, the lower savings rate and energy prices are unlikely to add much growth in 2012. With Europe contracting and China slowing down more than expected, US exports will take a hit. Extensions of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits will help ensure the federal deficit holds above 8%. Housing prices will continue to fall (based on Case-Shiller) causing the savings rate to once again reach 5%. By the end of 2012, the US will be in a recession (although NBER may not confirm this until 2013).

7) Federal Reserve extends forecasts for ~0% rates until 2015 - As growth in the US weakens once again and the global economy slows, expected inflation over the next ten years (based on Cleveland Fed estimates) will fall towards 1%. With unemployment holding steady around 9%, the Fed will move it’s forecasts for the first interest rate hike out to 2015. (Some form of QE3 is also likely, but aside from promoting short-term speculation, the effects on growth are likely to be muted.)

8) President Obama will win re-election - Generally a weakening economy has been poor for incumbents but this time will be seen as abnormal circumstances. The troubles in Europe and high unemployment will actually spark desire for a more interventionist government. Given the choice between Obama and Romney, the President will win re-election by a slim margin (2% or less).

9) The US dollar rises over 5% - (Based on dollar index) In spite of QE efforts and another sizable deficit, the US dollar retains its safe haven status. As fears of European defaults spread and China’s slowing growth impacts commodity prices, the dollar will continue to trend higher.

10) Bonds outperform stocks - The consensus once again favors stocks, although US Treasuries have now outperformed stocks over the past 1, 10 and 30 year horizons. With global growth slowing, inflation expectations will fall. Before this bull market in bonds ends, 10- and 30-year Treasuries may reach 1% and 2%, respectively.

For some potential investment themes based on these predictions, I suggest taking a look at Gary Shilling’s 2012 Investment Themes.  

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