Two words apply well for the year just ended: Whoa, Nelly! With the financial markets in chaos, the jobs landscape littered with layoffs, and the most audacious outpouring of federal funds since the Great Depression, most of us are ready to look forward to cheerier times in 2009.
Here at BusinessWeek, we've again donned our prognostication helmets and took a gander into the old crystal ball for a few (educated?) guesses at what this new year holds in store. True, we failed to predict the two major events of 2008—the election of Barack Obama and the financial meltdown rippling across the world economy. But we did nail one call: 2008 was the year of $100-per-barrel oil—we just didn't anticipate its stunning slide back to $40.
Expect more budget cuts, layoffs, shutdowns, bankruptcies, and mergers. Look for beleaguered bookseller Borders Group (BGP) to slip into Chapter 11, and for Barnes & Noble (BKS) to take over some of those stores—but only a few. Also expect Chrysler to merge into General Motors (GM) at a bargain-basement price as Chrysler's private equity owners at Cerberus Capital race to get that investment off their books. With the rapid collapse of oil prices, and the resulting financial pressures, expect two or more mergers among Big Oil. Our best guess? Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA) buys troubled BP (BP), in part to avoid regulatory issues that could come from merging with a U.S. oil company. There will also be tremendous pressure on wireless phone prices, causing financial headaches for companies like AT&T (T). Newspaper companies' profits will continue to shrink; watch for a billionaire such as financier George Soros or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lead a rescue of The New York Times (NYT), which will become part of a not-for-profit corporation by the end of the year.
Bernanke: Four and No More
President-elect Obama has nowhere to go but down in his approval ratings, so he may lose some popularity points as me makes tough choices in his early months. Also expect to see the last vestiges of the Bush Administration head for the exits. Declaring that his work is done, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will announce he'll leave the Fed upon the expiration of his four-year term as chairman on Jan. 31, 2010. While mostly not his fault, the recession has hurt his standing with the Obama Administration—and it also has worn him down on a personal level. He'll be succeeded by Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary under the Clinton Administration.
There will also be realignment on the global level. Look for Canada to forge stronger labor and trade ties with Europe in an effort to further unhinge itself from the flailing U.S. economy. Canada also will snub its southern neighbor to strike more energy and resource deals with other countries—especially China, which will continue its ascendance on the world stage in spite of economic setbacks. Also, it's a good bet Vladimir Putin will reassume the Russian presidency.
Oil Rises Again
There's a fair chance for a resurgence in oil prices, even if they dip below $30 in the next few months. Crude is likely to average $60 or $70 per barrel in 2009. OPEC will get its act together and rein in supply, and demand won't shrink as much as speculators had feared. Still, oil won't spike to the $100-plus range because consumers remain more energy-conscious. Oil companies will continue to invest in major projects as cash-strapped nations will open their doors to foreign investments just as they have done in the past when times are tough. And commodities are no longer the place for speculators to make a fast buck.
Workers Go Creative
Economists agree that further mass layoffs will continue in 2009, and the unemployment rate could reach the double digits. That means workers will turn creative about job opportunities. Look for freelancing and small business applications to explode as laid off workers attempt to strike out on their own. The downturn also is spurring more business and other graduate school applications, and young people will continue to take shelter at universities to ride out the storm.
Bling Takes a Break
Who can afford bling anymore? Who wants to? The ostentatious—eye-popping expense accounts, showy jewelry, McMansions—will be out and frugality will be back in fashion. Suddenly clipping coupons becomes trendy and, fortified by new Web services, hitchhiking stages a comeback. Boxed wine, already a budget sensation in Europe, will take off in the U.S. Look for eBay (EBAY) to enjoy a revival as Americans turn to the underground market to raise money and scour for bargains.
Business Embraces Big Government
Long considered a thorn in the side of commerce, the government will continue to be the apple of the business community's eye. Why? In tough times, Uncle Sam remains the economy's last resort. That doesn't mean there won't be plenty of fights over how to regulate industries and how to create not just Big Government, but also Smart Government. But by the time all is said and done, the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) funding will go well beyond $700 billion. President Obama will request, and Congress will approve, another several hundred billion in aid. Much of that will go to homeowners, although airlines will probably get a slug of cash as will auto parts makers.
Digital TV Nightmare
Chaos ensues in February when U.S. broadcasters cease analog TV signals, throwing millions of Americans into a dark-screen panic. Despite nearly $1 billion in spending on educational campaigns alerting Americans to the change, surveys show that many of the 40 million or so likely to be affected still don't realize what the digital broadcast shift means to them. The government is offering a $40 subsidy to help pay for converter boxes—but plenty of Americans still using older analog TVs have no idea.
3D Returns in a Big Way
Recession notwithstanding, innovations in 3D technology will flourish. Computing technology firm NVIDIA (NVDA) is bringing realistic 3D effects on the desktop into the market this year, and more movie theatres will have IMAX screens. Consumers also will get a peek at James Cameron's much ballyhooed Avatar, a 3D movie and game the storied producer has been slaving over since 2004.
Consumers Fight Back
Tapped out consumers will look for advocates in Congress for protection against predatory or deceptive practices in areas from credit-card fees to mortgages to exorbitant charges for text messaging by wireless companies. Legislation like the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights, which passed in the House in September, will have a better shot at passing the Democrat-controlled Congress and being signed by President Obama.
Housing Hits Bottom, At Last
Super-low mortgage rates—engineered by the government to help zap the economy—finally motivate us to shop for houses again. Prices will remain weak, as people who had kept their houses off the market suddenly put them up for sale as soon as they see a little buying interest. Expect home prices to continue to fall through the end of 2009. While the decline will mean trouble for some, for others, it's a golden opportunity to buy. By early 2010 credit and confidence in the market will be restored, and smart investors will be pleased to see the housing market start to recover.