What to Expect in 2014 (And Beyond)

This outlook is being written a good 45 days later than when “What to Expect in 2013…” was written over a year ago. It is amazing how much can happen in that short time frame and can influence one’s view of the next year. If I let another 45 days pass I am sure there would be some things that would change. I believe the risks are to the upside on more positive news on the economy but at some point that news could affect Fed action.  Much of what could happen this coming year is influenced by what is going on in the energy sector. Middle East economies, of course, but also inflation, GDP growth, and geopolitical events will affect markets and the US economy specifically. These points will become clear as I spell out some of my expectations. Understand that these expectations follow the Byron Wien formula where I believe there is greater than a 50% chance they happen when the rest of the world may not agree. The “Expectations” are designed to stimulate thought. Some of them can relate directly to the securities markets, but some do not, and this year, a little whimsy. Hopefully, you can figure out which one that is. Let’s begin:

  1. After printing two 4% GDP quarters in 2013 and seeing a 1 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate, there is finally some recognition that, maybe, the Fed’s actions really did produce some stimulus. This could lead to self-sustaining growth in the US economy in 2014 with at least one more 4% print this year. Less noise from the crazies in Washington adds to business confidence and, ultimately, capital expenditures.
  2. Economic growth and job creation become more apparent with forecasts for a decline in the unemployment rate possibly approaching 6% before the end of the year. The Federal Reserve begins making noise about speeding up tapering and hints at reducing the time the Funds rate would remain anchored at its current level. This is in spite of limited evidence, at least early in the year, that the inflation rate is approaching the targeted 2% level. This ultimately has a dampening effect on the markets.
  3. We begin seeing some academic work and, of course, the pundits talking about an acceleration of the technological revolution making the case that low inflation or maybe even some signs of deflation are actually a good thing in this technologically driven environment. The low inflation picture is reinforced at the headline level by energy supplies expanding within the US, in the Middle East from Iraq and, ultimately, Iran. As other countries embrace fracking the potential for even more supply keeps downside pressure on energy prices.
  4. The negative elements on inflation, which are not sufficient to cause major concerns, come via erratic supply in soft commodities from continuation of drought in certain areas combined with weather abnormalities which, more and more, are blamed on climate change. As we get into the latter part of the year, the improving developed market economies combined with growth in Asia put some upward pressure on hard commodities. Investors must make the decision to invest in the extraction companies that have suffered from low prices or directly into the commodities themselves.
  5. The positive change in US trade balances from lower imports of energy combined with rising energy exports adds more than a percentage point to US GDP and reinforces the case for a strong dollar relative to almost every other currency except possibly the Chinese yuan. Asia shows growing signs of a currency war fueled by the impact of further weakening of the Japanese yen beginning to very seriously affect the export trade of its Asian competitors.  While this has a tendency to push up inflation rates in many of the Asian countries, the developed markets benefit from lower prices on many imported goods further softening their inflation rates.
  6. The impact of the currency wars raises questions about the stability of some of the emerging markets, particularly in Asia. There are also concerns about the pace of wage increases in these heretofore attractive locations for outsourcing. Manufacturing and some service corporations begin making different strategic decisions on the best places to locate manufacturing and processing centers.  The decisions are reinforced by a growing belief that technological advances will continue to allow capital to substitute for labor, or at least keep pressure on wages. More business activities find their way back into the developed countries of the world. China moves cautiously in the same direction, taking advantage of its own technological progress. It begins marketing itself as a technological leader as opposed to a low-cost labor market. This is not easy as China, at the same time, continues to push toward a more consumer-oriented society. Incomes have to rise and, politically, the population needs to be kept content. It will not be a smooth year for China.
  7. Coming elections in India point to a possible loss of leadership for the Congress party. Combined with continued economic difficulties and some strife associated with the potential leadership change, the country moves further down the path of being even less attractive for foreign direct investment. It loses another year to the relative growth of its Asian neighbors and finds itself participating in the currency wars as a possible way to salvage elements of growth.
  8. With the exception of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Panama, the rest of Central and South America flounders. The US begins to pay more attention to its southern neighbors. Out of desperation, Argentina reaches a settlement on its outstanding debt and begins a focus on building its energy sector with some help from outside sources. A Menem-like regime change becomes a more likely political outcome.
  9. The changing energy picture outside the Middle East, combined with likely increased production out of Iraq and, ultimately, Iran, result in a change in the relative importance of Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, Israel. This could produce some positive movement in the Palestinian situation, and some changes in the relationships of Saudi Arabia with the rest of the Middle East and possibly Asia as the US becomes an even smaller market for its oil and an export competitor. On the other hand it raises the risk of some turmoil in the region as the power picture changes and attempts are made to preserve the old order in  a possibly military fashion.
  10. The fading newspaper industry surprises the street with its earnings in the early part of the year and benefits from contentious congressional races in the third and fourth quarters as well. The advertising related to Academy Award nominations and ultimately selections reaches new heights in print and social media. Studios advertise some small (but not cheap) movies to extremes to compete with some very high quality films and performances. We actually walked out of a couple of the most highly advertised ones. Aren’t two-page spreads a little extreme? Unfortunately, the correlation between the advertising and the nominations and awards becomes very direct leaving it up to the audiences to hopefully, make their own decisions after the fact. The quality and audience continue to rise for television productions and the associated delivery mechanisms for these performances leaving 3-D sequels and prequels to the movie industry. Can’t wait for “Inside Llewyn Davis Today–in IMax.”

So what does this all mean for the markets? I wish I knew. History says that the kind of equity market we had in the US in 2013 is usually followed by a decent year.  I don’t think it is that simple. We could see some re-allocation by institutions whose US equity portfolios have been pushed above their target percentages. At the same time, if we are beginning to return to a more normal relationship between earnings yields and fixed income yields, traditional debt doesn’t look that attractive. It may mean that markets outside the US are more attractive–maybe Europe and maybe some of the emerging markets if the currency is hedged out. There are some risk elements in the geopolitical situation. I think we will have to look harder for returns this year and the risks are high enough to look for some less correlated investments. I wouldn’t reduce my equity exposure, but I might change the mix.

We’ll have to see if another 45 days sets us up for totally different surprises. If nothing else I hope this has provided some food for thought.

I have some longer term expectations including a carryover from past years which, one of these days, will actually come to pass. I include these as additional repast for the brain. As has been the case since the millennium, the year will likely be more interesting than we anticipated.

  1. Contrary to normally quiet years during a transition of leadership, to some extent in reaction to some elements of an “Asian Spring” in the region, China takes further steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress. Externally, this includes significant acquisitions in other countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities where there is a receptive government. At home, R&D is accelerated, particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced and an explicit carbon tax is put in place.
  2. As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by.  Enlightened corporations become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems. Corporations become much more vocal about creating paths to bring more immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the domestic pool. The tide shifts significantly on immigration issues. The skill match is aggravated by decisions on the part of some US corporations to bring business operations back into the States. Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity, available feedstock and relative safety lead to better economics for manufacturing and service operations.
  3. Moore’s Law, driven primarily by Intel driving down the nanometer scale and introducing other innovations,  continues to march on. The use of Big Data becomes ubiquitous. This produces technological advances that enhance the opportunities in health care, manufacturing, extractive industries, media and services beyond even the imagination of some of the best speculative fiction writers. These advances, on balance, are positive but continue to raise concerns about the environment and quality of life and opportunity for those at the lower end of the economic and educational spectrum.
  4. Breakthroughs in stem cell research particularly led by work coming out of the New York Stem Cell Foundation change the nature of disease management and eradication and move general therapeutic advances away from animal models to direct testing on human cells. Targeted therapeutics driven by DNA analyses tied to narrower classes of patient recipients change the nature of drug and health delivery. It becomes apparent that the US FDA model is slowing the pace of US therapeutics development by the cost and time required to bring solutions to market. Much as financial services regulation was geared to the benefit of larger entities, it becomes clear that therapeutics development has been on the the same path. Change occurs in response to other countries moving more rapidly in bringing solutions to market.
  5. Away from continual ups and downs in financial assets as the world works its way through the hangover from the 2008-2012 financial crises, the general march of human progress is positive. I hope to be around to observe it. Maybe the breakthroughs suggested in the previous expectation will help that.

What to Expect in 2013 (and Beyond)–An Optimistic View

This year in early January I posted “What to Expect in 2012 (and Beyond).”  Some of what I expected last year has rolled over into 2013. With more than a month to go before we step into 2013 it is a little risky to make predictions, particularly when much of what is predicted depends on the resolution (or not) of the fiscal cliff. I believe we will reach a resolution and actually take some steps toward overall fiscal reform. That may be the biggest and most important expectation which sets the course for much of what else could occur. Hopefully, op-ed pieces like Steve Rattner’s in the 11/25 Sunday NYTimes will become part of the dialogue in Washington. Keep in mind that the expectations below follow the Byron Wien approach, i.e., my view is a greater than 50% chance of these expectations coming to pass while the conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s plunge in.

  1. With the resolution of the fiscal cliff and some steps toward overall fiscal reform, big corporations and small businesses step up their plans for 2013 and beyond, affecting hiring and capital spending.  The rest of the US economy joins the housing recovery, producing growth in the US exceeding 3.5% for the year with at least one quarter printing over 4% in spite of the trade deficit expanding.
  2. The US experiences double digit growth in capital spending as delayed plans are finally implemented with resolution of the fiscal cliff.
  3. Unemployment works its way lower by a percentage point. Unfortunately, the number of jobs unfilled increases substantially as the mismatch between skills and needs comes into stark relief.
  4. The new leadership in China, while taking a conservative social stance, takes additional steps to insure a decent recovery in economic growth. The strength of the US economy aids China’s recovery.
  5. While the noise about Greece grows and is joined by more concerns about Spain, Italy and France, Europe continues to muddle through with interesting support from the Middle East and some support from China.
  6. As Moore’s Law marches on, Samsung and others introduce advances in tablets and communications devices which puts pressure on Apple that reflects itself in relative stock performance. Apple does an interesting pivot which changes the landscape for even more robust consumer devices.
  7. The Argentine situation is not contained and has an impact on politics, growth rates and inflation for its neighbors, requiring more attention to South America from the US than we have been willing to give thus far.
  8. As we enter the year end 2013, because of the surprising global growth, there are some unsettling signs of inflation. QE is reduced and expectations for a rise in rates increase.
  9. The US stock market has a good rise in the first half of 2013, but inflation concerns and a possible Fed reaction push markets down in the latter part of the year reversing  some but not all of the earlier gains. Analysts find themselves chasing earnings for much of the year.

The next few expectations are holdovers, with some modifications, from 2012. They may not all come to pass in 2013. None of them were complete in 2012.  But as we move further into the decade, in my view, they will likely happen, and will have an impact on how our future unfolds.

  1. Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent in reaction to some elements of an “Asian Spring” in the region, China takes several steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress. Externally, this includes significant acquisitions in other countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities where there is a receptive government. At home, R&D is accelerated, particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced and an explicit carbon tax is put in place.
  2. As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by.  Enlightened corporations become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems. Corporations become much more vocal about creating paths to bring illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the domestic pool. The tide shifts significantly on immigration issues. The skill match is aggravated by decisions on the part of some US corporations to bring business operations back into the States. Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity, available feedstock and relative safety lead to better economics for manufacturing and service locally.
  3. Aside from the continuing concerns about Europe and the ripple effect of the Argentine situation on South America, India becomes a focal point. With the economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, the leadership looks for diversions and points to its neighbors, China and Pakistan as problems. There are internal confrontations as well. While there is limited impact on the global economy, the uncertainty affects foreign investment and India’s outsourcing businesses.

On balance, this is a set of optimistic expectations with some trouble spots, as always, diverting our attention. I am optimistic about what can happen, certainly within the US, as long as the crazies in Washington get a bit rational. If not, I will need to spell out a whole new set of expectations. It will be an interesting year.

What to Expect in 2013 (and Beyond)–An Optimistic View

Last year in early January I posted “What to Expect in 2012 (and Beyond).”  Some of what I expected last year has rolled over into 2013. With more than a month to go before we step into 2013 it is a little risky to make predictions, particularly when much of what is predicted depends on the resolution (or not) of the fiscal cliff. I believe we will reach a resolution and actually take some steps toward overall fiscal reform. That may be the biggest and most important expectation which sets the course for much of what else could occur. Hopefully, op-ed pieces like Steve Rattner’s in the 11/25 Sunday NYTimes will become part of the dialogue in Washington. Keep in mind that the expectations below follow the Byron Wien approach, i.e., my view is a greater than 50% chance of these expectations coming to pass while the conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s plunge in.

  1. With the resolution of the fiscal cliff and some steps toward overall fiscal reform, big corporations and small businesses step up their plans for 2013 and beyond, affecting hiring and capital spending.  The rest of the US economy joins the housing recovery, producing growth in the US exceeding 3.5% for the year with at least one quarter printing over 4% in spite of the trade deficit expanding.
  2. The US experiences double digit growth in capital spending as delayed plans are finally implemented with resolution of the fiscal cliff.
  3. Unemployment works its way lower by a percentage point. Unfortunately, the number of jobs unfilled increases substantially as the mismatch between skills and needs comes into stark relief.
  4. The new leadership in China, while taking a conservative social stance, takes additional steps to insure a decent recovery in economic growth. The strength of the US economy aids China’s recovery.
  5. While the noise about Greece grows and is joined by more concerns about Spain, Italy and France, Europe continues to muddle through with interesting support from the Middle East and some support from China.
  6. As Moore’s Law marches on, Samsung and others introduce advances in tablets and communications devices which puts pressure on Apple that reflects itself in relative stock performance. Apple does an interesting pivot which changes the landscape for even more robust consumer devices.
  7. The Argentine situation is not contained and has an impact on politics, growth rates and inflation for its neighbors, requiring more attention to South America from the US than we have been willing to give thus far.
  8. As we enter the year end 2013, because of the surprising global growth, there are some unsettling signs of inflation. QE is reduced and expectations for a rise in rates increase.
  9. The US stock market has a good rise in the first half of 2013, but inflation concerns and a possible Fed reaction push markets down in the latter part of the year reversing  some but not all of the earlier gains. Analysts find themselves chasing earnings for much of the year.

The next few expectations are holdovers, with some modifications, from 2012. They may not all come to pass in 2013. None of them were complete in 2012.  But as we move further into the decade, in my view, they will likely happen, and will have an impact on how our future unfolds.

  1. Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent in reaction to some elements of an “Asian Spring” in the region, China takes several steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress. Externally, this includes significant acquisitions in other countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities where there is a receptive government. At home, R&D is accelerated, particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced and an explicit carbon tax is put in place.
  2. As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by.  Enlightened corporations become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems. Corporations become much more vocal about creating paths to bring illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the domestic pool. The tide shifts significantly on immigration issues. The skill match is aggravated by decisions on the part of some US corporations to bring business operations back into the States. Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity, available feedstock and relative safety lead to better economics for manufacturing and service locally.
  3. Aside from the continuing concerns about Europe and the ripple effect of the Argentine situation on South America, India becomes a focal point. With the economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, the leadership looks for diversions and points to its neighbors, China and Pakistan as problems. There are internal confrontations as well. While there is limited impact on the global economy, the uncertainty affects foreign investment and India’s outsourcing businesses.

On balance, this is a set of optimistic expectations with some trouble spots, as always, diverting our attention. I am optimistic about what can happen, certainly within the US, as long as the crazies in Washington get a bit rational. If not, I will need to spell out a whole new set of expectations. It will be an interesting year.

What Could Happen in 2012 (and Beyond)

Byron Wien, the Election, the Economy, Immigration, China, India, South America, Education–surprises!

Byron Wien does the most thorough job of putting together thoughtful, provocative and useful ideas on possible surprises for each year. I have been fortunate enough to know Byron and to participate in the Third Thursday group on which he draws, in part, to test both conventional wisdom and real surprises. I could not attend the December lunch this year as I was in India. Below is the email I sent Byron in late November. I will use that as the start of my thoughts on surprising things that could happen in 2012 and will then toss out a few additional ideas. Here we go:

“Byron, Am heading to India on Friday. Sorry I will miss your pre-surprise lunch. Am attaching copies of the text and slides I will be using in India. I don’t think they say anything you don’t know, but you might find something in there…My big surprise is that Joe Biden will not be the VP candidate in the coming election. Second surprise would be that the US does better than expected in 2012 given the debacle in Europe. Neither China nor India do as well as currently expected and China steps up to do something in Europe–maybe buy a Greek Island? They need Europe. Brazil starts to look a bit like Argentina–I think they are way understating their inflation rate. Capital flows our way and the RU dips into the 7’s before the election. If so, Obama wins in a walk. The really big surprise would be Huntsman as the Republican candidate–or maybe Obama’s VP candidate? What a ticket that would make. Jack”

The idea of surprises is to get people thinking away from trendlines. I use Byron’s definition, which is a personal belief that there is greater than a 50% chance of something happening where conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s continue:

1) It is hard to see us getting through the year without an energy crisis of some type where demand significantly exceeds supply and oil prices spike once again. This could stem from trouble in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. It could be brought about by some covert action by the US that has been in the works for some time and comes to fruition within the next 10 months. There are too many possibilities for this not to have greater than a 50% chance of occurring within this calendar year. The combination of a hydrocarbon energy crisis combined with a major climate disaster somewhere in the world will lead to policy actions on the part of the US to accelerate both natural gas development and alternative energy development as well.  Energy efficiency finally begins having its day. Talk of a carbon tax grows particularly as other countries implement implicit and explicit carbon pricing.

2) Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent forced by an “Asian Spring” throughout the region, China takes several bold steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress, combined with a desire by Hu and Wen to put more of their stamp on the future.  This includes major acquisitions in the developed countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities. At home, R&D is accelerated particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced or eliminated and an explicit carbon tax is put in place. Following Australia’s lead and China’s moves, several Asian countries put in place mechanisms to reduce their use of conventional hydrocarbons for energy–although everyone finds that they have 200 million year-old hydrocarbons in shale formations and begins using the immature  production technologies developed in the US, creating even more environmental disasters.

3) As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by. Enlightened corporations, led by GE,  become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems which were supposed to do the job. Corporations become much more vocal about bringing illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the pool domestically. It becomes clear that a controlled amnesty program for current illegals in the US will add significantly to GDP and to government revenues. The tide begins to shift on immigration issues.

4) The US labor situation is aggravated in the short term by decisions on the part of several US corporations to bring manufacturing operations back into the States.  Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity and relative safety lead to better economics manufacturing locally. Caterpillar’s actions with its Canadian operations start the ball rolling. As stated above, US corporations take on a significant role in training and general education to meet their labor needs.

5) In spite of the demand for its natural resources, South America finds itself in much more turmoil politically and economically than one might expect. Natural disasters from climate change and it’s young mountain ranges compound economic issues from changes in export markets and a continuing misallocation of financial resources. Led, once again, by problems in Argentina, some degree of turmoil ripples north through the continent into Central America and requires more of the attention of the US than we have been willing to give thus far. Immigration to the US, both legal and illegal, accelerates as the US economy picks up steam.

6) India becomes a focal point. With an economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, India looks for diversions. Troops move north to “prepare” for confrontation with China, and west to confront Pakistan. Some elements internally are confronted as well. While the numbers show growth, the quality is somewhat problematic. Energy shortages push India toward even more aggressive alternative energy policies.

These aren’t all of the surprises we will find in 2012. I must say I continue to be optimistic about the US in spite of the crazies in Washington and the anger, bigotry and fear manifesting itself during the Republican primary battles. All of those who were planning on moving out of the country if Obama was re-elected–the ABO crowd– or any of the Republican choices–the ABAR crowd, might want to reconsider.