By Matthew Lynn
LONDON (MarketWatch) — Shortly before the 1929 stock-market crash that ushered in a global recession, the American economist Irving Fisher made a rightly celebrated forecast: “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
That should be enough to warn anyone off making predictions, particularly where finance and business are concerned. Still, since we are stuck in the quiet space between Christmas and New Year’s day, here are a few things that might or might not happen in 2012.
1. Mario Draghi resigns
Predictions for the euro zone make as much sense as trying to forecast the weather for the summer of 2020. The situation is so volatile, no one really has any idea what is going to happen any more. Here is one thought, however. The simplest way out of this crisis is for the European Central Bank to start printing money, but the main problem is selling that fix to the Germans. When it comes to the crunch, Draghi will step aside, a German will be installed, and the printing presses will be switched on.
Reuters European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi
2. Britain starts an Olympic revival
As the French will spend most of 2012 telling everyone, the U.K. economy is in as bad a shape as any in the world. Its debts are a towering 450% of GDP, its key industry — financial services — is in structural decline, and its main trading partner is heading into a deep recession. But the London Olympics will be a huge success. With a devalued currency, falling wages, and a flexible labor force, the U.K. economy will start reinventing itself — and the Olympics will be seen as the point where the economy started to recover.
3. Vladimir Putin resigns
The Russian leader faces what now looks like a tricky campaign for the presidency in March. He’ll win, but without a convincing majority. The political leader he most resembles is France’s General de Gaulle — nationalistic, conservative and authoritarian, but with a deep sense of his country’s history and place in the world. After de Gaulle suffered a setback in a referendum, he resigned in 1969. Before the end of the year, President Putin will step down on health grounds. Once he’s gone, Russia will liberalize — and investors will move into its cheap stocks.
4. The dollar starts a bull run
Barack Obama may or may not be a great president, but with the opposition unable to come up with a convincing alternative, he will cruise to a relatively easy re-election. In a world where the euro zone is imploding, Russia is in turmoil, and the Chinese economy will be looking wobbly, the U.S. will seem to be the only real safe haven. Everyone will want to get that portion of their portfolio that isn’t in gold into dollars — and the currency will embark on a long-term bull run.
5. France accepts a reduced role in the world
This will be a traumatic year for the French. The country will lose its triple-A rating, and sink back into recession. The far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen will be the star of the presidential election. But in the end, the dull-as-watching-paint-dry Francois Hollande will replace the grand-standing Nicolas Sarkozy as president. By the end of the year, the French will have started to accept that they are no longer major players in the world, either on their own, or through the EU.
Reuters France's President Nicolas Sarkozy
6. Poland steps up to the plate
Which country is the strongest player in the European Union? One with strong growth, healthy public finances, low debt, and a sizable population. That would be Poland. The government deficit was 5.9% of GDP in 2011 and will drop below 2.9% in 2012. Government debt as a percentage of GDP will fall to 52% next year. It is forecast to grow by 2.5% in 2012 even as the euro zone slips into recession. And with 38 million people, this is a major country. As countries such as France lose their triple-A rating, and nations such as Britain drift away from the EU, there will be space for Poland to have an increasingly assertive voice.
7. An investment bank shuts down
An estimated 233,000 staff have been laid off in the banking industry in 2011. Every day brings news of yet more redundancies, and it is only going to get worse in the new year. This is an industry in serious trouble. Banking expanded during the three decades that the developed world leveraged up. During a two-decade de-leveraging, banking is going to become a smaller industry. There isn’t enough business to support so many companies, with so many lavishly paid staff. One of them will close in 2012.
8. Europeans start to migrate
The traditional response of Europeans to economic trouble is to get up and go somewhere else. The U.S. is exhibit A, Australia is exhibit B. With a deep recession looming, many will try their luck elsewhere. It’s already happening. Greek, Portuguese and Irish emigration numbers have all soared in the past year. In 2012, the Italians and Spanish will join the
9. Everyone looks to Iceland
At the height of the credit crunch, everyone bought into the idea that you had to bail out your banks or else the economy would go bust. Except for Iceland. It was too small, and its debts too big, and it ended up defaulting on $85 billion of debt. Mainstream opinion said the country was finished. Not so. This year, it grew by 2.5%, and it is forecast to grow by 1.5% next year. That is a faster rate than the euro zone. Capital controls are being steadily lifted, and the exchange rate is strengthening again. The lesson is inescapable. You don’t need to bail out your banks after all.
10. The Christmas e-card goes out of fashion
Do any of us really need festive greetings from a small bank in Latvia we’ve never spoken to? Is that Austrian management consulting firm sincere in wishing me the best for the holiday season? I doubt it. Listen up guys. It’s not thoughtful. It’s not touching. It’s spam. Frankly, I’d rather get another email from that friendly Ukrainian company that supplies Viagra without a prescription. By Christmas 2012, sending out e-cards will be socially unacceptable — and not too soon.
Matthew Lynn is a financial journalist based in London. He is the author of "Bust: Greece, the Euro and the Sovereign Debt Crisis," and he writes adventure thrillers under the name Matt Lynn.