Byron Wien, vice chairman of Blackstone Advisory Partners, today published his list of surprises for 2012 — following a 25-year tradition he began while still chief U.S. investment strategist at Morgan Stanley.
Byron defines a “Surprise” as an event which the average investor would only assign a one out of three chance of taking place but which Byron believes is “probable,” having a better than 50% likelihood of happening:
The Surprises of 2012
1. The extraction of oil and gas from shale and rock begins to be a game changer. The price of oil drifts back to $85 a barrel and the United States becomes less dependent on Middle East supply. Deposits in Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere prove promising as well. Increased production from Libya and Iraq and reduced demand resulting from the slowdown in world-wide economic activity contribute to the price decline.
2. Earnings for American corporations continue to move higher driving the Standard & Poor’s 500 above 1400. Raw material prices continue soft and business leaders successfully adjust to slower economic growth by using technology to reduce the labor and logistical component of goods and services sold; profit margins stay high.
3. The U.S. economy gets its second wind. Real growth exceeds 3% and the unemployment rate drops below 8%. Recession fears and even “the new normal” view of prolonged slow growth are called into question. Capital spending, exports and the consumer drive the economy, overcoming fiscal drag. The drop in the price of oil and the rise in the stock market improve both consumer confidence and spending patterns.
4. The recovering economy and the declining unemployment rate help President Obama convince the voters that he didn’t do such a bad job in his first term after all. He is viewed as a good speaker but a poor leader who is running against Mitt Romney, viewed as uninspired and whose positions on many issues are unclear. Democrats take back the House of Representatives but lose the Senate in an anti-incumbent wave.
5. Europe finally develops a broad plan to deal with its sovereign debt problem and moves closer to fiscal cohesion. The European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Financial Stability Facility and the European Union band together to keep all the countries within the Union and to continue the euro as the Continent’s currency. Greece has a major restructuring of its debt; Spain and Ireland strengthen their finances during the year, but Italy suffers a “voluntary” restructuring. A meltdown of the banks is avoided, but imposed austerity causes Europe to suffer a recession.
6. The computer replaces conventional armaments as the principal weapon of terrorists and geopolitical adversaries. Eastern European and Asian hackers invade the data banks of major international financial institutions causing temporary bank closures. An alarmed G-20 meets to address the problem.
7. Concerned over rapid money supply growth in the developed world, investors buy the currencies of countries that seem to be managing their economies sensibly. Scandinavian currencies, the Australian and Singapore dollar and the Korean won benefit.
8. Congress decides its dysfunctionality is harmful to both parties and acts before the November election to deal with the failure of the Super Committee to develop a program to reduce the U.S. budget deficit by $1.2 trillion over ten years. Both defense and Medicare are cut significantly; subsidies for agriculture are reduced and tax deductions for oil, gas and real estate partnerships are modified. Obama pledges to let some aspects of the Bush tax cut program continue if he is reelected.
9. The Arab Spring finally overcomes Bashar al-Assad and his family’s rule over Syria ends. While Assad’s fall might have been inevitable, it has important ripple effects throughout the region weakening Hamas, Hezbollah and further isolating Iran.
10. After two years of poor stock market performance while their economies came through with high single-digit real growth the emerging markets finally have a good year. Growth slows somewhat but favorable valuations enable China, India and Brazil indexes to appreciate 15-20%.
Below are several “also rans” which did not make the Ten Surprises list because (a) I did not think they had a more than 50% probability of happening and/or (b) they were not as important to investors as the ten I ultimately chose:
11. Housing starts to pick up significantly. The strength in the economy coupled with record affordability encourages the consumer to come back into the market and make long term commitments. The overhang of vacant homes begins to be absorbed.
12. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note rises to 4% as China continues to invest heavily in hard assets and raw materials and pulls back from putting reserves into the bonds of developed nations.
13. After correcting sharply toward the end of 2011 gold rebounds to $1800 during the year. Accommodative monetary policies throughout the developed world cause a renewed migration to hard assets by individual investors and sovereign wealth funds. Silver benefits also, rising to $40.
14. Fiscal discipline at the state and local level allows the drop in yields for municipal bonds to continue.
Byron Wien is vice chairman of Blackstone Advisory Partners, and is the former chief U.S> investment strategist for Morgan Stanley.