If the global economy fails to recover in 2009, the housing bubble or credit crunch may not be to blame. It could be a lack of fire.
Chinese fortunetellers say fire — one of the five elements mystics believe form the basis of the universe — is essential to financial well-being. And fire is nowhere to be found in the mythology of this coming Year of the Ox, the Chinese lunar year that begins Monday.
"Fire is the driving force behind economic growth. Without it, the market lacks momentum," said Raymond Lo, a Hong Kong master of feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice of trying to achieve health, harmony and prosperity through building design, the placement of objects and auspicious dates and numbers.
Chinese soothsayers see a deepening recession, millions more losing their jobs, and stocks and home prices continuing to fall. That's more or less in line with what some economists are predicting, but some fortunetellers are throwing in other dire predictions — massive earthquakes, rising U.S.-Russian tensions and trouble for President Obama.
Obama, born in the Year of the Ox, is taking office in a particularly bad year for his Chinese astrological sign. The ox sign is in direct conflict this year with a traditional Chinese divinity called the "God of Year," considered a bad omen. Obama also is the 44th president, a number the Chinese deem extremely unlucky, because "four" is pronounced the same as "death" in Chinese.
"The new U.S. president is not having good luck this year. His honeymoon will only be short-lived," said fortuneteller Alion Yeo, predicting Obama may even face impeachment in his first year in office. "The Year of the Ox looks slightly better and less dire than last year, but it will still be bumpy."
Yeo also predicted that the U.S. mortgage crisis would worsen and the stock market would plunge to new lows.
But Malaysian numerologist Weng Shi Ming suggested Obama's birth year would offset his bad luck. Weng said the symmetry of 1961 is "the perfect mix of ying and yang," rendering Obama "immune to the effects of 44."
The ox, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, symbolizes calm, hard work, resolve and tenacity. According to legend, the ox allowed the cunning rat to ride on its head in a race to determine the animals' order. Shortly before the ox crossed the finish line, the rat leaped off to claim victory. The Year of the Rat was marked in 2008.
Among the world's luminaries born in the Year of the Ox: former U.S. President Richard Nixon (1913), former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925), Princess Diana (1961), and Hollywood actors George Clooney (1961) and Richard Gere (1949).
The lunar new year is the biggest annual festival for ethnic Chinese, who make up about one-fifth of the world's population. It is a time of lavish spending, when loved ones exchange "hong bao," or red envelopes stuffed with money. But this year's festivities will likely be more subdued amid the economic slump.
"What's important is that the family has a good time. There's no need to overspend," said Ooi Lee Mui, a Malaysian housewife shopping in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown, where the season's gold lanterns and bright-hued flowers bedecked streets and stores.
Joey Yap, a feng shui expert in Malaysia, saw no economic recovery before 2010.
"It will be a daunting year. We haven't really reached the peak of the problems yet," Yap said. "We haven't tasted the main dish, and will most likely experience it during the second half of the year."
But feng shui master Lo saw a glimmer of hope. The combination of two elements changes every lunar year, and this time it's two earths, the element that represents harmony and peace. Not since 1949, when the world order was settling down after World War II, has an Ox Year seen two earth signs.
"It is a year for healing ... from the turbulent time the world has experienced," Lo said.
Associated Press Writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this story.