Byron Wien, vice chairman of Blackstone Groupâ€™s Blackstone Advisory Partners and fellow Morgan Stanley alum, just issued his list of The Ten Surprises for 2011. This is the 26th year for the list, which also includes ten â€œalso ranâ€ possibilities.
The Surprises of 2011
1. The continuation of the Bush tax cuts coupled with the extension of unemployment benefits has put all working Americans in a better mood. Real Gross Domestic Product rises close to 5% in 2011 driven by improved trade and capital spending in addition to stronger retail sales. Unemployment drops below 9%.
2. The prospect of increasing Federal budget deficits and rising government debt finally begins to weigh on the bond market. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury approaches 5% as foreign investors become more demanding. Spreads with corporate fixed income securities narrow.
3. Encouraged by renewed economic momentum the Standard & Poorâ€™s 500 rises close to its old high of 1500. A broad range of sectors participate, but telecommunications and utilities lag. With earnings improving, valuations seem low and individual investors return to equities for the first time since the financial crisis. Merger and acquisition activity becomes intense and the market reaches a blow-off euphoria. Stocks correct in the second half as interest rates rise.
4. Although inflation remains benign, the price of gold rises above $1600 as investors across the world place more of their assets in something they consider â€œreal.â€ Sovereign wealth funds of countries with significant dollar reserves also become big buyers. Hedge funds keep thinking the price rise is becoming parabolic and sell their positions and some even short the metal but gold keeps climbing and they scramble back in.
5. Worried about inflation and excessive growth, the Chinese decide to use their currency as a policy tool. They manage the value of the renminbi aggressively to keep the growth of the economy below 10% and to prevent consumer prices from increasing above the 4%â€“5% range. The move is viewed as a precursor to the world-wide adoption of a basket including the renminbi as an alternative to the use of the dollar as the principal reserve currency.
6. Rising standards of living in the developing world seriously increase the demand for agricultural commodities. The price of corn rises to $8.00, wheat to $10.00 and soybeans to $16.00. Commodities become a component of more institutional portfolios.
7. The housing situation improves. Although the inventory of unsold homes remains high, the oversupply is drawn down substantially, contrasting with an increase in 2010. The Case-Shiller gradually heads higher and housing starts exceed 600,000.
8. Continuing demand from the developing world and a failure to bring onstream new supply causes the price of oil to rise to $115 per barrel. The higher price at the pump fails to discourage driving, increase sales of hybrid vehicles or cause Congress to initiate conservation measures.
9. Frustrated by the lack of progress against the Taliban and the corruption of the Karzai government, President Obama concludes that whenever American troops return home, Afghanistan will once again become a tribal state ruled by warlords. He accelerates the withdrawal of most military personnel to the end of 2011. Coupled with the pullout of forces in Iraq, this will leave the Middle East without a major Western presence in the face of rising fears of terrorism.
10. Under duress Angela Merkel leads the way in European financial reform. The weaker countries, having pledged to cut their budget deficits in half by 2014, are provided additional transitional aid by the European Union (with Germanyâ€™s backing) and the International Monetary Fund as long as they implement their austerity programs, increase some taxes and still show modest growth. The European financial crisis becomes less of a concern. The policies put in place prove psychologically satisfying to the financial markets but harmful in the longer term because they are palliative and do not represent solutions.
11. While Afghanistan and Iraq cool down as trouble spots, Pakistan and North Korea flare up. The former continues to be a troublesome breeding ground for terrorists and the latter initiates further hostile attacks on South Korea. China does not become involved in a major way and the international community seems helpless.
12. The broad international sanctions on Iran finally begin to work. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enters into negotiations to scale back the countryâ€™s nuclear weapons development program in exchange for financial aid and foreign investment. Pressure from the countryâ€™s youth to provide more economic opportunity is the key factor in the change in policy. Talk about bombing by Israel or the U.S. subsides.
13. Rising interest rates and a strong economy allow the dollar to strengthen against the euro and the yen. Although the European financial crisis abates as austerity programs and higher taxes are put in place and Japan avoids falling back into recession, America becomes the developed market of choice for global investors.
14. Sarah Palin announces she will seek the Republican nomination for President amidst the cheers of Tea Party supporters. More moderate Republicans fear her candidacy will diminish the chances of their party winning in 2012 and try to blunt her efforts. Rick Perry, governor of Texas becomes a contender. Mike Bloomberg is mentioned. On the Democratic side, liberals feel Obama has betrayed them and desperately try to find a challenger. With the economy improving the prospect of a second term for Obama becomes more likely.
15. The Russian government decides it is the laggard of the emerging markets and steps up its efforts to become more investor friendly. The Kremlin agrees to further nuclear weapons reduction and provides assurance to companies willing to invest there that the rule of law will prevail. The Russian equity market soars.
16. Laws related to marijuana usage are liberalized in more states. Recognizing that the drug may not be addictive, the publicâ€™s attitudes have evolved over the last thirty years, and this, along with a desire to alleviate the over-crowding of jails, causes state legislatures to take a more liberal position. Drug abuse groups are outraged.
17. Infrastructure problems in the United State become serious. New York subways are inoperative for days as a result of an electrical problem in the signal system. Gridlock snarls Los Angeles freeways, and to encourage cooperative commuting, high-occupancy vehicles are required to carry three or more people. State and local governments complain they lack the funds to deal with the problems and Washington refuses to help.
18. A major state fails to pay interest on a municipal bond issue because of a lack of funds, causing havoc in the municipal bond market.
19. In spite of fears of tenth anniversary terrorist attacks, 9/11/11 becomes a peaceful non-event because of excellent intelligence and surveillance.
20. While climate change activists remain shrill, the issue recedes in importance in the United States. Cold weather prevails during the winter and the summer heat is not oppressive. Support increases for a broader use of natural gas by utilities and public transportation and its price rises to $6.00 per mcf. In Europe and Asia however, environmental initiatives continue to move ahead.