It's that time again when pundits and guru wannabes of all stripes say how they think 2013 will turn out for the economy and markets. Here are my four best predictions, along with one big wild card.
1. The U.S. economy will continue to grow, albeit slowly, in 2013.
Now that we've avoided the fiscal cliff by permanently preserving the Bush tax cuts for 98% of the American people, I believe a Washington, D.C.-induced U.S. recession is unlikely.
The expiration of the payroll tax holiday and the $100 billion in automatic spending cuts from the notorious "sequester," along with any additional changes in the tax code to raise revenue, might knock as much as 1.5% off GDP this year. With economists looking for 2.3% growth in 2013, that could mean GDP rises less than 1%, especially early in the year.
But Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke's aggressive bond-buying program will keep interest rates at rock-bottom lows and support the continuing recovery in housing, which I think is real. It will also help offset the lingering effects of the various fiscal hurdles we'll have to scale this year.
As 2013 advances, business's uncertainty will ease somewhat, which will help the economy and market do better later in the year (see below).
2. The worst of the Eurozone's debt crisis is over.
Yes, Greece is a mess, and Spain and Italy are deep in the doldrums, cursed by high unemployment and economic and political stagnation, respectively. And the eurozone is in a mild double-dip recession.
But European Central Bank president Mario Draghi has vowed to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro by preventing major countries from defaulting on their debt, and he announced an asset-purchase plan backed up by the ECB's $3-trillion-plus balance sheet.
Not that there won't be flare-ups from time to time, but I think Europe is more likely to take markets down by, say, the 8% by which they fell in 2012 than the 16% and 20% they tumbled in 2010 and 2011.
And once we get past the German election this fall, Chancellor Angela Merkel will have more leeway to consider broader solutions rather than stalling and kicking the can down the road. (Sound familiar?)
3. U.S. stocks will rise, but not as much as in 2012.
The S&P 500 index gained 16% with dividends reinvested last year, while the Russell 2000 and MidCap indexes and the Dow Jones US Total Stock Market index did roughly the same.
I don't expect a repeat this year, for a couple of reasons. First, the continuing fiscal debate in Washington, which now shifts to spending cuts and the debt limit, has been a downer in the past. Once we get into the thick of it again, traders won't be throwing confetti on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
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Also, stocks are entering the weakest period of the four-year presidential election cycle. "The market generally hits a low point every four years in the first (post-election) or second (midterm) year," according to the 2012 Stock Trader's Almanac.
No one can time the markets exactly, but my best guess is we're now in a nice relief rally from the New Year's fiscal cliff deal, but that will dissipate as we approach the new "fiscal ridges" in the weeks ahead. There could even be a sharp sell-off.
I might take some profits as stocks move higher, but I would hold on to a core equity position (say, 50% of your holdings) on the chance we'll resume the bull market after a rocky patch. Financial and consumer discretionary stocks - which outpaced the market in 2011 and 2012 - would take the brunt of any correction as investors get more defensive.
4. Emerging markets will outpace the U.S. once again.
I've been down on emerging markets even as U.S. investors foolishly pumped money into them while dumping outperforming U.S. stocks. I felt that the hype about the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) was particularly overblown.
The MSCI emerging markets index, though, slightly beat the S&P last year, and I expect that gap to widen in 2013 as countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Colombia, and Turkey post strong results. India also had a good 2012, and even long-lagging China started to pick up.
Since you can't predict which emerging markets will lead the pack in any given year, I'm adding to my holdings in broad-based ETFs like iShares MSCI Emerging Markets index (EEM) and Vanguard MSCI Emerging Markets (VWO).
But of course, political events can have disproportionate impacts on these economies, and that's where my wild card comes in.
Wild card: Iran and Israel.
In the past, I've wrongly predicted that we'd face the "year of decision" on Iran. It hasn't happened so far. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a shoo-in for re-election in January, and he has famously warned we're approaching a "red line" with Iran's nuclear program.
Sanctions have hit Iran's economy hard, but it's unclear if they'll force the ruling mullahs into serious negotiations. And we don't know how close Iran is to Israel's - or President Obama's - red line, where it's clear it is intent on getting nuclear weapons.
But we do know that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would likely trigger a new Middle East war, with disruption of shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf and a spike in oil prices. That may in turn drive the world economy into recession and rout stock markets while spurring rallies in energy and gold.
So, yes, I do think 2013 will be pretty good - especially as we get past midyear. But lots of risks remain. That's why I'm sticking to my conservative stock allocation and keeping both eyes wide open.
Have a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!