2012 predictions worth discussing
Middle East, the eurozone and China will influence events of new year.
Special to The Seattle Times
It's New Year's prediction time, which reminds me of the advice that may have come from Lincoln: "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open one's mouth and remove all doubt."
For the record, New York University star economist Nouriel Roubini, aka Dr. Doom, puts the probability of a recession this year at 60 percent, principally because of government austerity and budget cutting, along with the eurozone mess.
BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research warns: "Investors should expect another turbulent year of market volatility during 2012 from a mix of heightened policy risk, political uncertainty, low growth and low interest rates, all of which will translate into modest investment returns."
Seattle's Russell Investments foresees continued global deleveraging from our big debt overhang. Also, "Lower standards of living, high unemployment, lower returns and higher volatility should all be expected."
The Atlantic magazine's "wild" predictions include Microsoft as company of the year, buying Nokia to build a smartphone better than Apple's iPhone; a dramatic China slowdown; Bank of America pulls a dramatic turnaround, and the economy begins a real recovery. Good luck with that.
Predictions notwithstanding, we know some of the key issues that will influence 2012.
Among the immediate dangers: Will Iran or North Korea do something crazy? The former is threatening to cut off the industrial world's oil lifeline at the Strait of Hormuz, while the latter is a Stalinist dictatorship prone to provocation, possessing nuclear weapons, in the midst of a leadership change and situated in Asia's economic heart.
There's Iraq, which fell into sectarian squabbling only days after the official exit of American troops. As with Iran, instability here will affect oil prices.
The eurozone gained time by the larger-than-expected intervention of the European Central Bank, but only that. The problems of resetting sovereign debt, exposed banks, political paralysis and recession will keep Europe a danger zone for the world economy.
Back to China: A serious slowdown would be another event to put the kibosh on even a mild recovery and maul the Pacific Northwest trade economy. Can Beijing manage a soft landing? (Russell's strategists argue that it can) The whole world is watching.
At home, the upcoming election will further harden, if that's possible, the political divide that has made it impossible to address the jobs crisis, climate change, the decline of the middle class or failing American education, infrastructure and competitiveness.
It would be valuable if the presidential contest led to a serious discussion about the way forward from a calamity worse than any since the Great Depression, and in many ways like it. That we could actually hear the truth from our leaders. I can fearlessly predict that won't happen.
The housing market will not recover to become the prime driver of a new boom and masker of deep, long-percolating rot in the American economy. Neither will the Federal Reserve. Or even the financial sector.
The U.S. economy continues to have a huge crater of demand left by the Great Recession. Politics made a meaningful stimulus, one that would have created plenty of jobs and positioned us to compete in the new century, impossible. And this year the Obama stimulus will be petering out. Further pressure on recovery will come from continued cutbacks in government jobs.
The new year will bring continued misery to millions of Americans, including the jobless, those facing housing trouble and many who had hoped to retire but must work on — if they're lucky enough to have a job. After the recession and the lost decade of the 00s, the typical American households real income is back at 1997 levels.
Very slow growth makes it almost impossible to rescue this situation for years. Indeed, the danger of long-term contraction — and how does a society based on fairly high growth manage it — is real.
But millions of others are doing well, especially those in finance, the innovators whose ideas are rewarded in the marketplace and beneficiaries of intergenerational wealth. Average working stiffs aren't seeing their wages rise much if at all, but they're employed.
Big U.S. companies remain strong and cash-rich. While some smaller firms still struggle for loans, others are prospering again. Some sectors are seeing modest signs of expansion.
Steve Gordon, president of Pacific-based Gordon Trucking, is one of my front-line sources whose position in transportation gives him an early view of trends. "We support nearly all the big retailers as well as the big food and other (consumer package group) folks, and they're mostly stronger going into" 2012, he told me.
"Even our home-improvement and building-products customers feel like they're coming off the bottom. ... The market for drivers has been noticeably tighter, usually a good sign for the labor market."
These are some of the things we know this first day of the year. But the leading edge of history never loses its capacity to surprise.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jontalton.
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
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