Taking Stock / Twelve Forecasts for 2009

The year 2009 won't be an easy one. We can only hope that in a year's time we'll look back and realize that for the first time, the Israeli government took advantage of the crisis to institute true reforms.

Forecasting is a hobby for fools, they say and then say again. Here we go.

1 A hundred days after Barack Obama enters the White House, the fond hopes of a quick economic recovery will fade He promised change and investment in infrastructure, healthcare and education but will discover that the treasury's demented outpouring of money has not rescued the U.S. America's road to the cure involves dieting. Private and public consumption must drop, which means the American standard of living has to fall. No more wallowing in money borrowed from banks and foreign governments.

2 The true dependence of the U.S. economy on cheap money and credit will become starkly clear as giant companies and whole industries that had relied on borrowing, or on consumers borrowing to buy their products, collapse. The government's rescue packages for Big Car will turn out to be like treating cancer with aspirin. American unemployment will spike to its highest level in 20 years.

Obama, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and the economists of America, who had assumed that zero interest was a sure-fire way to stimulate the economy, will discover that the American economy is too sick to respond to even that medicine. The Fed will print so much money that inflation will join recession.

3 The meltdown will take even the bears aback as it spreads in 2009. Gigantic losses by pension funds will create heavy budget deficits in both the American public and private sector. Manhattan may have held up in 2008, but the recession will hit it with all its strength in 2009.

4 The trouble in America will ripple out, causing crises in all the economies relying on exports to America. In the West, Britain will stand out for bad reasons: Like America, it had become addicted to its blooming financial system and credit. Japan will too, relying as it does on export to America, and because of the powerful yen.

The biggest disappointment will be China. Growth will collapse after five years of double-digit figures. Whole industries will implode and no package from Beijing can spare the nation from slowdown, sharply climbing unemployment and civil rioting, which the government will quell with a heavy hand.

The same will happen in Russia, for the first time in seven years. The collapse of oil will cause a fiscal and financial crisis, and rioting. The people, who had given Vladimir Putin limitless credit while oil fueled the economy, will lose patience as starvation stalks the steppes.

5 The Israeli economy, which many think will prove strong and start to rally in 2009, will do no such thing. Recession will begin in the export industries and spread to other commerce and service areas. Sharply dropping tax collection and the helplessness of the government will spur the highest deficit in seven years, more than 5% of GDP.

Politicians and businesspeople will demand the government spend even more in order to stimulate the economy, thus increasing the deficit. But the main reason for the increased deficit won't be investment in infrastructure, or in spurring the business sector. The culprit will be the open mouths of the bloated public sector and the gigantic defense establishment.

6 The giant burden of the public sector will depress the middle class, the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who aren't feeding from the public teat. While the private sector will slash tens of thousands of jobs as the global crisis growls, the public sector, protected by powerful unions, won't cut any. The opportunity that the crisis presents to make structural changes will be missed again.

7 The year 2009 will bring terrific opportunity to get into stocks and corporate bonds, not because they'll rally, but because they won't. Hope of stocks rebounding after losing half their value in 2008 won't come true. The second stage of the financial crisis will develop in 2009: trading volumes in stocks will collapse and the last risk lovers will jump ship. A few spikes in asset prices will prove to be a bear trap and stocks will drop to new lows during 2009.

Everybody figures the corporate bonds market is also presenting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They're going to be sorely disappointed in 2009 as companies dodge their debt, sending pensioners to soup kitchens as they shrug and repay maybe a third or half of what they originally owed. Bonds of companies that do show they mean to repay, or to offer profit-sharing deals with bondholders in the event of upside, will soar.

8 The crisis in their businesses, their inexperience in the bond market and the fact that most are controlled by businessmen in debt up to their necks themselves, will stop institutional investors from faithfully doing their real job in 2009 - protecting their investors from the companies trying to dodge debt.

Institutional investors will fall into one of two groups: the ones that showed a sense of responsibility, and the rest.

9 Builders who predicted that housing prices in Israel will rebound in 2009 because of the drop in building starts will look mighty foolish. The layoffs, the evaporating sense of wealth and the drop in property prices worldwide will hit the local market, too.

The luxury apartments that went up in Tel Aviv will stand empty. Unfinished projects will be suspended in hope of better times, which will not arrive in 2009.

10 The real status of several household-name tycoons will become clear. Thei true scope of their losses will come to light. Some who had indulged in huge private investments, in securities or property, will be unable to refinance.

Bankers will try to keep some on life support, mainly the ones with cronies on the bank board. But the Bank of Israel will intervene out of fear for the financial system and will force the banks' credit committees to think twice.

11 A wave of consolidation will sweep the business scene, sometimes with bankers holding a gun to the parties' heads. The Antitrust Authority will have to rule whether the mergers really are necessary, or whether it's just an attempt to take advantage of the weather to destroy the little competition there is.

12 The year 2009 won't be an easy one. We can only hope that in a year's time we'll look back and realize we got everything wrong, and that for the first time in history, the Israeli government took advantage of the crisis to institute true reforms that will spur the economy upward and forward, when the turnaround does come.