Betting Against Byron Wien Was a 2013 Winner
God bless Byron Wien, also known as the world's bravest man, at least for one day each year. The Blackstone Advisory Partners vice chairman is out with his list of 10 "surprises for 2014." It's the 29th year he's done this. And to understand why he is today's bravest man in the world, take a look at the list of 10 surprises for 2013 that he issued last year.
The vast majority of them were wrong. (Which helps explain why the less-daring among us in the commentary class generally refrain from making lists of predictions.) 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 Wien "believes is `probable,' having a better than 50% likelihood of happening." Click here to see the new list he released this afternoon. See below for his predictions for 2013, released Jan. 2 of last year, along with my annotations. Here goes.
1. Iran announces it has adequate enriched uranium to produce a nuclear-armed missile and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirms the claim. Sanctions, the devaluation of the currency, weak economic conditions and diplomacy did not stop the weapons program. The world must deal with Iran as a nuclear threat rather than talk endlessly about how to prevent the nuclear capability from happening. Both the United States and Israel shift to a policy of containment rather than prevention.
2. A profit margin squeeze and limited revenue growth cause 2013 earnings for the Standard & Poor’s 500 to decline below $100, disappointing investors. The S&P 500 trades below 1300. Companies complain of limited pricing power in a slow, highly competitive world economic environment.
Fourth-quarter results aren't in, but it's highly unlikely he will be right about earnings. The lowest close for the index was 1,457. The S&P 500 finished the year at 1,848.
3. Financial stocks have a rough time, reversing the gains of 2012. Intense competition in commercial and investment banking, together with low trading volumes, puts pressure on profits. Layoffs continue and compensation erodes further. Regulation increases and lawsuits persist as an industry burden.
Financial stocks soared. The KBW Bank Index rose 35 percent last year. But he was right about government lawsuits. (Ask JPMorgan Chase & Co.)
4. In a surprise reversal the Democrats sponsor a vigorous program to make the United States independent of Middle East oil imports before 2020. The price of West Texas Intermediate crude falls to $70 a barrel. The Administration proposes easing restrictions on hydraulic fracking for oil and gas in less populated areas and allowing more drilling on Federal land. They see energy production, infrastructure and housing as the key job creators in the 2013 economy.
West Texas Intermediate hit a low of about $86 a barrel last year. It's about $93 now.
5. In a surprise reversal the Republicans make a major effort to become leaders in immigration policy. They sponsor a bill that paves the way for illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship if they have lived in the United States for a decade, have no criminal record, have a high school education or have served in the military, and can pass an English proficiency test. Their goal for 2016 is to win the Hispanic vote, which they believe has a naturally conservative orientation and which put the Democrats over the top in 2012.
Republicans become leaders in immigration policy? Dream on.
6. The new leaders in China seem determined to implement reforms to root out corruption, to keep the economy growing at 7% or better and to begin to develop improved health care and retirement programs. The Shanghai Composite finally comes alive and the “A” shares are up more than 20% in 2013, in contrast with the previous year when Chinese stocks were down and some developing markets, notably India, rose.
China's leaders do seem determined to root out corruption, so give him partial credit here. The Shanghai A-Share Stock Price Index fell about 7 percent.
7. Climate change contributes to another year of crop failures, resulting in grain and livestock prices rising significantly. Demand for grains in developing economies continues to increase as the standard of living rises. More investors focus on commodities as an investment opportunity and increase their allocation to this asset class. Corn rises to $8.00 a bushel, wheat to $9.00 a bushel and cattle to $1.50 a pound.
Corn plunged and ended the year at $4.22 a bushel. Wheat also took a fall and closed at $6.05 a bushel. Cattle had little change, finishing at $1.35 a pound, and didn't reach the high he predicted.
8. Although inflation remains tame, the price of gold reaches $1,900 an ounce as central bankers everywhere continue to debase their currencies and the financial markets prove treacherous.
The price of gold fell 28 percent to $1,205 an ounce. It never broke $1,700.
9. The Japanese economy remains lackluster and the yen declines to 100 against the dollar. The Nikkei 225 continues the strong advance that began in November and trades above 12,000 as exports improve and investors return to the stocks of the world’s third largest economy.
Hooray! The Nikkei 225 finished the year above 16,000, and he was right about the yen.
10. The structural problems of Europe remain largely unresolved and the mild recession that began there in 2012 continues. Civil unrest subsides as the weaker countries adjust to austerity. Greece proves successful in implementing policies that reduce wasteful government expenditures and raise revenues from citizens who had been evading taxes. European equities, however, decline 10% in sympathy with the U.S. market.
The first sentence wasn't much of a prediction: Europe's structural problems weren't going to be resolved in a year. The Euro Stoxx 50 Index, the leading blue-chip index for the euro area, rose 18 percent.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)