Wien defines a “Surprise” as an event which the average investor would only assign a one out of three chance of taking place but which he believes is “probable,” having a better than 50% likelihood of happening.
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 & Poor’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 “real.” 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%–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 Germany’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. “