Top 7 Business Predictions for 2012

PHOTO: AT&T Inc. signage is displayed outside of a store in New York, U.S., Dec. 16, 2011.PlayPeter Foley/Bloomberg/Getty Images
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What does 2012 hold for the worlds of personal finance, business and investing? We canvassed a wide variety of pundits and prognosticators and chose the 7 predictions below as being among the most surprising, thought-provoking or useful. As for accuracy… Well, they've still got 12 months to be right.

An Economic Recovery That Worsens Unemployment. How could that be? Easily, predicts Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic. Recent months, he says, have seen the unemployment rate drop below 9 percent "for the simple reason that as many people are dropping out of the workforce as are finding work." When the economy bounces back, he argues, those people will re-appear in the labor force by the millions, driving up the unemployment rate. "A few more jobs divided by a LOT more job seekers means a lower employment rate." He predicts the rate "will get closer to 11 percent before it gets closer to 6."

Wheat Prices That Double. Saxo Bank 's prognosticators don't limit themselves to predicting events they think are likely to happen. They throw their net wider to include what the bank calls outrageous predictions--"events which, should they happen, would change the outlook and performance of markets." For 2012, their list of what they call "outrageous" predictions includes a doubling in the price of wheat. "The price of wheat will double during 2012, after having been the worst-performing crop in 2011," reads their report. Weather worldwide is forecast to be bad, making 2012 "a tricky year" for agricultural products. "With 7 billion people on the earth and money-printing machines at full throttle," Saxo concludes, "wheat especially will rally strongly as speculative investors…will help drive the price back towards the record high last seen in 2008."

E-tailers Will Wallop Retailers Even Harder. It's not as if brick-and-mortar retailers didn't lose business in 2011 to online sellers of everything from books to shoes. But Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and head of California venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, predicts those inroads will cut far deeper in the coming year. 2012, he tells CNET's Paul Sloan in a wide-ranging Q&A, will be the year when conventional retailers really start to feel the heat, with more and more going the way of Borders and Tower Records. "If I own[ed] mall real estate or retail stores in cities, or if I own[ed] chains like electronics chains, I'd be concerned…I think electronics and clothes are going to be a real pressure point. Home furnishing is going to come under pressure. The flip-side? "Amazon is going to do really well."

Bonds: One bright spot. Bill Gross, manager of the world's largest Total Return Fund, tells The New York Times he thinks interest rates are unlikely to rise, meaning there will be few opportunities in 2012 for bond investors. One exception: tax-free municipal bonds, an asset class that he calls under-valued, owing to scare headlines about municipal bankruptcies and threatened defaults. Just because a handful of municipalities have declared bankruptcy, he says, doesn't mean that many more aren't sound. The average A-rated bond pays 4 to 5 percent, tax-free.

Banks Will Want to Play Games. Philip Blank of Javelin Strategy & Research tells Reuters he predicts that that banks, unable or unwilling to offer better interest rates, will try to woo and hold customers in 2012 by repackaging certain of their traditional services as games. Some banks already, through a company called SaveUp, offer a sweepstakes-type of game in which depositors earn the right to play for prizes ( everything from coffee pots and gift cards on up to a $2 million grand prize) when they increase their savings or reduce their debt. He says customers can expect banks to other Facebook-promoted games as well as random rewards.

Gold & Silver. Forecasters predict higher prices for precious metals—but opinion differs about how high. Member of the Professional Numismatists Guild were asked what they expect prices to do in the next three months and for 2012 overall. Predictions for where gold would end the first quarter ranged from $1,475 an ounce to $2,155, with a mean average of $1,976.22. The year-end predictions were for $1,450 to $2,575. As for silver, first-quarter predictions ranged from a low of $24.35 to a high of $57.50 the ounce (mean average $34.04); with a year-end price predicted to be from $23 to $130 (mean average $48.73). Gold ended the year at $1,564.

Stocks. Prognosticators at Smart Money say that while predicting the market is like predicting the weather, certain trends seem certain to continue: "More of the world will get wired, eat more protein, and drive more cars. And companies with global reach will have a growing edge." The stocks forecast to benefit from those trends include these three:

Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan produces compounds essential to fertilizer. With world population forecast to grow by 44 percent through 2100, 3 billion more mouths will need to be fed, prompting farmers to use more fertilizer to increase the productivity of land.

AT&T's wireless revenue, says Smart Money, represented half of its $94 billion in revenue in the first three quarters of 2011, up from about a third in early 2007. Though its old-fashioned land-line business is on the wane, it's far from dead, since, as one investment fund manager points out, "Every Wi-Fi in the world is connected to a fixed-line network somewhere."

A zillion Chinese driving (eventually) a zillion cars: Whence cometh the gas? Almost certainly from China National Offshore Oil Corp., that nation's largest producer of crude oil and natural gas. Thanks to an advantageous deal struck between CNOOC and foreign oil companies exploring off China's coast, CNOOC gets a share of any oil discovered but suffers no cost if they fail.