Last year I took a chance and threw my own projections into the ring. Similar to Byron Wien and Edward Harrison, I mostly selected events that were widely seen as having a low probability (less than 33%) but which I believed held a greater than 50% chance of occurring. Let’s see how I did...
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.
Result - Wrong (0-1). During 2012, Greece was successful in reducing its budget deficit by 30 percent and staying in the Eurozone. This success was in large part due to further defaults on public debt and another bailout. Unfortunately for the Greek people. the price of these efforts remains extraordinarily high. The economy may have contracted as much as 6.5 percent in 2012, the fifth year of recession, according to forecasts in the 2013 budget. Meanwhile both the general and youth unemployment rates continue to soar, reaching ~27 percent and ~58 percent, respectively. At this point Greece is clearly in the midst of a Depression and showing no signs of recovering anytime soon. Greek tolerance of increasing unemployment and decreasing prosperity remains a surprise, although radical political parties have been gaining support. For now Greece remains in the Eurozone, but a future exit remains likely.
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.
Result - Wrong (0-2). A Greek default and concerns about the European economy weighed heavily on EU sovereign debt during the first half of the year. By the summer, ten-year bond yields in Spain and Italy were at 7.75 percent and 6.75 percent, respectively, and rising. With the countries at risk of losing access to credit markets, ECB President Mario Draghi came forth with a plan to cap sovereign interest rates using open-ended outright monetary transactions (OMT). Draghi’s threat was enough to generate a 180 degree turn in EU sovereign debt markets, but nowhere near enough to turn around the economies. Italy and Spain both returned to recession this past year, pushing fiscal deficits and unemployment higher. While Italy’s unemployment rate remains closely tied to the EU-wide level of ~11 percent, Spain’s general and youth unemployment rates have quickly caught up to Greece’s levels. Eventually Draghi’s Liquidity Bluff Will Be Called, potentially sooner rather than later as a strengthening euro may reignite the EU crisis.
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.
Result - Correct (1-2). The euro zone economy contracted 0.2 percent in the second quarter and 0.1 percent in the third, meeting the technical definition of a recession. The fourth quarter drop is looking even worse following recent news that Germany saw output shrink 0.5 per cent between October and December. Although Germany managed to run a slight fiscal surplus, at the expense of growth, Spain’s budget deficit probably exceeded 9 percent for a fourth year in 2012. The first half of the year did witness credit downgrades and austerity agreements, but Draghi’s big kick at the end of summer pushed any further actions into future years.
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.)
Result - Wrong (1-3). During the third quarter China’s growth rate slowed to a three-year low of 7.4 percent, but the year-end tally will probably be around 7.7 percent. As growth slowed and housing prices fell early in the year, the government took action to allow a smoother transition between governments. Fiscal stimulus has pushed growth and inflation higher in the last few months, but at the expense of rebalancing the economy toward consumers for future sustainability.
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 overthrow 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%.
Result - Wrong, but close (1-4). Fears about Iran and the Middle East never really materialized this year but that did not prevent a wild ride in oil prices. After rising to over $113 in April, WTI crude prices dropped all the way down to $80 in August (daily price history). A rally in the last week of the year brought the closing price slightly back above $90. Brent crude prices diverged significantly from WTI in 2012, keeping gas prices at the pump high throughout the summer. Gas prices peaked at $3.94, not quite $4, but nevertheless reached a record-high average of $3.62 per gallon.
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).
Result - Wrong (1-5). Despite Europe contracting, China slowing down and the federal deficit dropping to 7% (still over $1 trillion), US GDP growth remained positive throughout 2012. After falling to 1.3 percent in the second quarter, annualized GDP growth jumped to 3.1 percent in the third quarter. Although current estimates for fourth quarter GDP are below 1 percent, the US is most likely not in a recession at this time. Partially behind the positive growth was the impact of housing prices rising over 5 percent and the savings rate remaining below 4 percent.
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.)
Result - Correct (2-5). Expected inflation over the next ten years fell consistently during the course of the year to approximately 1.5 percent (chart below). Although unemployment improved materially, dropping below 8 percent, the Federal Reserve still felt the urge to step up monetary stimulus. On September 13th, 2012, the FOMC extended its projections for maintaining “exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate...at least through mid-2015” while enacting a plan to purchase “additional agency mortgage-backed securities at a pace of $40 billion per month” indefinitely. Since QEternity was insufficient to boost growth, the Fed also enacted QE4 to raise the rate of balance sheet expansion.
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).
Result - Correct (3-5). President Obama crushed Romney in the 2012 election based on the electoral college, however the popular vote was decided by less than 3 percent.
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.
Result - Wrong (3-6). As fears spread about European default and a slowdown in China, the dollar rose several percent into the summer months. When those fears were assuaged by politicians, not economic data, the euro began a strong rally. By the end of the year, the dollar had essentially finished flat.
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.
Result - Wrong (3-7). Slowing global growth, falling inflation expectations and stagnating corporate earnings were not enough to deter stocks from a very strong performance in 2012. The Bernanke put morphed into a proactive Fed determined to push asset prices higher and succeeding to the tune of over 15 percent. While stocks were riding towards new highs, the bull market in bonds also remained intact. The 10- and 30-year Treasuries hit their respective lows of 1.43 and 2.46 during the summer before heading higher into year end. Ultimately 10- and 30-year Treasuries last year posted returns of only 3 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.
That’s the end of it. 3-7 is certainly a bit of a disappointment, especially given the direction of events through the first half of the year. That being said, the logic behind each prediction was sound and far more on target than the end result suggests. My main takeaway is that politicians are far more determined to maintain the status quo than I had expected. The underlying economic (and social) problems have once again been kicked down the road for future governments to handle. As long as that pattern holds, current optimism and modest growth can persist for another couple years.
My hope is to have Predictions for 2013 out by the end of next week. Stay tuned.