As others were making New Year's Eve plans, I asked a group of Motley Fool analysts for one bold (possibly outlandish) prediction for 2012. The following are the results of my query (including my own prediction at the end ).
Morgan Housel: First, let's be honest: No one can predict the future, especially when confined to something like one year. Remember, there's nothing special about a year; it's just the time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun. Whether a prediction takes place in one year or 18 months or three years shouldn't be important.
But here's my prediction: I think housing will do much, much better than most assume. It's pretty amazing, but housing is as unsustainably low right now as it was unsustainably high during the bubble years. During the bubble we were building about 2 million homes a year while adding 1.5 million new households per year. Today we're building 500,000 homes a year while adding around 1 million new households per year. That can't go on forever -- it's like an anti-bubble. I don't think it's crazy to say some regions could even be facing a housing shortage within the next few years.
Travis Hoium: Unemployment will drop to 7.5%. The employment picture has been improving faster than many expected, especially if you look at the right data. Widely reported non-farm payrolls have increased moderately, adding a bit over 600,000 jobs in the last four months. But a separate survey of households shows that that number exceeds a million. This data may be more accurate because it comes from households, not businesses, so it includes new business and very small business additions that the non-farm payroll number may miss.
Consumers, the driver of the U.S. economy, are also feeling a little more chipper than they have in a long time, as indicated by the Consumer Confidence Index jump to 64.5 in December.
A 7.5% unemployment rate may be a stretch from today's 8.5%, but I think a positive economic spiral will take hold in 2012. Strong corporate balance sheets, relatively low taxes, and years of underinvestment will be the fuel that drives the employment picture back next year.
Matt Koppenheffer: How's this for bold? I predict that a big bank gets broken up in 2012.
The coming year could be the year that JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) gets knocked off its high horse, but I don't see it being the target of a breakup. Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) has a knack for flying under the radar when it comes to "too big to fail" conversations, even though it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, so I don't think it'll be the one to go.
How about Citigroup (NYSE: C ) ? Now we're getting warmer. But as logical as a Citi breakup might be, I think if there's a big bank that ends up in pieces in 2012, it'll be Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) . B of A is undoubtedly a big, stinky mess, but believe it or not, I think there are some good assets within B of A. A breakup could let those good assets see the light of day.
Alex Dumortier: Here's how I'm going to define a "bold prediction": a prediction relating to an event that people aren't discussing much (or even at all) despite it having a material probability of occurring -- higher than the market anticipates. I don't claim the odds are better than even, however.
S&P 500 earnings will decline in 2012. Quarter after quarter of impressive earnings growth by the most prominent companies in the U.S. has been, well, impressive. That trend has already lasted longer than I was expecting, but it isn't never-ending -- that much is certain. Profit margins are mean-reverting. We know this. Current profit margins are at the top end of their historical range. We know this. Given the state of the economy, revenue growth is unlikely to be above trend. We know this. In that context, extrapolating growth rates from the recent past could prove dangerously misleading. Analysts are looking for a 10% increase in S&P 500 earnings in 2012. If those earnings are flat year over year or, worse, if they decline, consider the implications for stock prices.
Anand Chokkavelu: Matt's bold prediction on a big bank going down this year could certainly happen. And Bank of America is the perceived weakest of the herd. But I'm going to wax optimistic. My bold call is that Bank of America will be the Dow's biggest winner this year. Because of its current bad reputation, it has a lot of upside if sentiment changes. By hook or by crook, it's now profitable (finally), and if Morgan's correct that the housing situation will get better, B of A will be a major beneficiary. More clarity around mortgage litigation and Europe could also be catalysts. So could a real dividend (though don't hold your breath for the near term) or just about any favorable economic news -- like Travis' prediction of lower unemployment.
Yes, Bank of America was last year's biggest loser. And, yes, at the beginning of 2011, I also thought B of A would be the biggest winner of the 30 stocks in the Dow (INDEX: ^DJI ) . Maybe I'll finally be right. Maybe I'll be spectacularly wrong again this year. Either way, it's a good reminder to take all these predictions with massive amounts of salt.
Those are our bold predictions for the year ahead. Fingers crossed. If you'd like one more stock-based bold prediction, our chief investment officer named his No. 1 stock for the next year in our brand-new free report: "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012." I invite you to take a copy, free for a limited time. Just click here to access the report and find out the name of this legendary company.