by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.
The year ahead is going to be a tumultuous one, challenging in political, economic, and financial terms. Despite this, there are opportunities for those prepared to take advantage of them, because uncertain times mean that market share is up for grabs. And no, it’s not a coincidence that there are 12 trends for 2012. I discarded a bunch more, but it’s such a catchy title I couldn’t resist.
I’m going to approach these 12 trends with three objectives: What is important? Why is it important? And what does it mean to you?
And I’m going to start with the bad news, and end with the silver linings.
1) Declining American influence – America’s absolute and relative influence in geopolitics, economics, finance, and the military is declining for a host of reasons: the rise of competing powers like China, India, Brazil, and others; the very expensive military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have sapped America’s willingness to engage in aggressive political and/or military action; the Arab Spring, which eliminated Middle Eastern strongmen like Mubarak who followed America’s political lead, and the continued stalemate over the fate of the Palestinians, means that America’s influence over this critical and unstable region is at or near an all-time low; the Great Recession, which has sapped America’s economic and financial clout; and the dysfunctional stand-off between Republicans and Democrats that has frequently led to policy paralysis.
The implications of this are a less stable, more dangerous world. America may have gone back and forth on whether it wanted to be the world’s policeman, even though it truly was the global cop, and it’s inability to fill that role now means that the world is a more dangerous place.
This sets the stage for sticky situations to emerge, such as the twin nuclear threats from a suddenly even less-stable North Korea, and the only slightly more stable and geopolitically ambitious theocracy in Iran. It also leaves more elbow room for the ever-ambitious China to expand its power and influence, notably in south Asia and the South China Sea. It also leaves critical global issues, like what to do about climate change, without essential leadership.
The implications of this is a world where there are more likely to be more, and more serious, geopolitical, financial, and economic crises, and greater uncertainty in virtually every aspect of life. Others may not always have agreed with American policies, but they will miss America’s steadying influence as it ebbs from their lives.
2) Ho-hum! Just another financial crisis (European edition) – The daily drumbeat of scary headlines dealing with the financial crises in Europe have gradually deadened everyone’s awareness for how dangerous the situation truly is. In particular, Angela Merkel is juggling hand-grenades, and hoping that she won’t drop any, and that none of them will go off unexpectedly. Germany is the only European country with the potential to stop the rolling crises that are affecting Europe, and then only if Merkel acts in a timely basis. To do this, she must let Greece go bankrupt instead of propping it up, shore up the banks, notably German banks, that have bought far too many dodgy EU bonds in the past, allow the European Central Bank (ECB) to become a lender of last resort, with the ability to stop a run on European bonds, and halt the bond market attacks on other European countries, starting with Portugal and Ireland, but extending to the much bigger countries like Spain, Italy, and even France. But Germany doesn’t want to do these things, and German voters are adamant that they won’t subsidize what they see as the lazy, profligate lifestyles of southern Europeans. But if Germany doesn’t act, and in a timely fashion, it may lose the ability to act at all, and come under attack from the bond markets as well. Indeed, German bonds are no longer being bought with as much enthusiasm as they were even two months ago. If Germany doesn’t act soon, it may lose the ability to do so at all.
Remember what happened in the American financial markets in 2008? If Germany doesn’t act in time, we could see the same kind of thing happen in 2012, this time starting with a run on European government bonds. From there a run could spread to those banks – American as well as European – that hold too many of these bonds. And once such a run started, the most dangerous question of all would emerge: “Who’s next?” Investors, frightened by the panic, would look to sell any and every questionable credit, and their attention might turn to the various U.S. state and local governments, like Illinois, California, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, among many others, that are struggling with their finances.
The U.S. Federal Reserve has become the de facto lender of last resort to the entire developed world, and would undoubtedly step in and support the banks and markets with everything they had. But this time, remembering the callous, greedy ingratitude of last rescue of the banking industry, American voters and the American Congress would likely tell the banks to drop dead. It was a hard enough last time to get Congress to bail out the banks; this time I suspect it would be impossible, even though failing banks would take the global economy down with them. Moreover, the Fed doesn’t have anywhere near as many bullets today as they did in 2008, and Fed Chairman Bernanke already has some Republicans, notably Ron Paul, baying for his blood over the quantitative easing from the last crisis.
The danger here is frighteningly real, and even greater than the risks we faced in the panic of 2008. Yet, the steady drip of crisis headlines and last-minute rescues has left many people convinced that nothing will happen. If it does, it will catch people flat-footed, not because they didn’t know there was a crisis, but because they have been hearing about it for over two years now, and have tuned it out. We could muddle through, and probably will – but the risks are far higher than most people realize. It will be important to have thought out a Plan B to deal with the unthinkable, if it happens, one that prepares you and your finances for a bigger repeat of the 2008 panic. Again, it probably won’t happen – but it’s better to have a plan and not need it, than need a plan and not have it.
3) Yes, China’s influence will continue to rise, but… Napoleon famously said, “China is a sleeping giant. Let it sleep.” Well, China’s very much awake now, and throwing her weight around – although cautiously. If I were (God forbid) Emperor of China, I would require my minions to tread cautiously, to smile a lot at our trading partners and neighbors, and to make our gains slowly, one salami slice at a time, never appearing too greedy or overreaching. I would practice soft diplomacy, offering aid and comfort where I could do so cheaply, loudly proclaiming our respect for other countries’ internal policies, taking leadership positions in things, like climate change, where I knew I was going to have to make changes anyway, and generally trying to look like a good global citizen. I would act, in short, as if time were on my side, and I was going to be the next Big Thing.
And generally speaking, that is precisely what China is doing – except that every once in a while the mask slips, and the avarice and aggression shows, as with the boundary disputes with other countries, especially as related to the South “China” Sea, which China (the nation) seems to be trying to interpret literally as being a Chinese lake.
But China has an Achilles’ heel – several of them, in fact – and does not have (much) time on its side. Its biggest weakness is that it is aging faster than any other significant country on Earth. Because of its One Child policy, China’s population is expected to peak, and begin declining, sometime around 2020 – within the next 10 years. And its labor force is already in decline, even as the demands for higher wages push its cost structures higher.
Meanwhile, although there is a great deal of pride in China’s new affluence among the Chinese, that affluence is not evenly spread, and there is unrest among those who remain poor. Add to this the widespread corruption of Chinese officials at all levels, which often provokes revolts, like the one in Wukan, which leads to simmering dissatisfaction among many Chinese.
This will further be exacerbated by the fact that China’s factories are automating almost as quickly as those of the developed world, which threatens to slow the rate of job creation, productivity, and affluence markedly over the next 10 years. Yet, China dare not automate; to do so would mean a loss of competitiveness, which would produce even worse results as industries would move elsewhere.
So, with that in mind, what would I, as self-appointed Emperor of China, do? Worry about a future I couldn’t control, and for which I could not see a clear path forward. The next 10 years will mark the beginning of the end of China’s ascension, and if I were Emperor, I’d think about retiring to some warm, cushy haven before the revolution came. Chinese Spring, anyone?
The implications are for China to step up its attempts to increase power and influence, and throw its weight around even more actively before that power starts to wane, but as quietly as possible. Look for China to try to make this the China Decade, especially in finance, trade, and geopolitics, as it attempts to pull in as much as it can while it can.
4) American Spring? Meanwhile, closer to home, while those on the political right like to dismiss the Occupy movement (e.g., Occupy Wall Street), the fact that the movement happened at all is the most significant part of it. Indeed, Time magazine made protestors its “Person of the Year”, and that’s not restricted to just the Arab countries. The Occupy movement and protests against cut-backs in many developed countries had many of the earmarks of the Arab Spring: protestors saying that their governments serve an elite clique and not the people; lots of people, especially young men, who cannot find work despite months or years of trying; and a belief that the political system is neither representative nor responsive. Just because winter has fallen, and the Occupy settlements have been disbanded does not mean that the dissatisfaction has gone away. And with increasingly dysfunctional government in America, the potential is there for a much stronger protest movement against the System, however that is defined. American Spring, perhaps? It sounds unlikely, but not as unlikely now as it did before, and it won’t be restricted to America for discontent will grow in all developed countries.
This is especially true as the boomers move towards retirement, only to find that their either don’t have the resources to retire and that no one is going to donate them, or that the civil servant pensions that they were promised are unaffordable.
The protest movements have only just begun, and they are going to be acrimonious, disruptive, and at times hijack the political process.
5) Mixed signals for both weaker – and stronger – economic growth. Europe and its prospects are dragging the global economy down. The uncertainty in Europe, combined with the painful budget cuts in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, mean that Europe is now in recession and a drag on the global economy.
Meanwhile, China, which had been concerned about inflation, and hence was hiking interest rates in a bid to slow it, has now reversed itself, which I can only interpret as concern that growth will slow more than they want. That’s a potential positive, as it will add stimulus to the global economy.
Canada, which has to date seemed to skate above most of the problems of the rest of the developed world, now seems to be experiencing slower growth, with an unexpected jump in the unemployment rate, while its housing market is looking pricey, frothy, dangerous, and much like America’s prior to the collapse in 2008, especially in condo development in its major cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. Moreover, its consumer debt levels are exceeding the levels of American consumers in 2007, and no less a figure than Mark Carney, the highly respected Governor of the Bank of Canada, has warned consumers and banks alike to cut back on consumer borrowing. Canada could be arriving late for the financial meltdown of 2008 – but if its consumers don’t mend their ways, they will get there.
And yet, America, which until 2008 was seen as the world’s engine of growth, seems to be picking up for no specific reason. Actually, this was almost inevitable because of the natural dynamism and entrepreneurship of the American economy. What has prevented America from rebounding earlier, or more strongly, has been the housing market, which is still in horrendous shape – but slowly improving.
So how will this balance out through 2012? Assuming that Europe doesn’t crash and burn, and drag everyone else down with it, and that Iran doesn’t precipitate a significant war in the Middle East, then America will continue to recover, its jobless rate will continue to decline (slowly), the world will lick its (economic) wounds, and things will slowly get better.
Accordingly, while I continue to counsel my clients to have a Plan B in their back pocket if things do go bad, my primary advice is the prepare now for better times ahead. There are problems – big problems – ahead, and the American election in 2012 is not going to help, but for 2012 we are likely to see an improving environment, and opportunities re-emerging for those with the courage to grasp them, as I outline in Trend #7 below.
6) Climate change accelerates – and the consequences will multiply. The most significant and portentous climate news of 2011 was the discovery of methane gas bubbling up in the Arctic Ocean off the north coasts of both Siberia and Alaska. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the melting of the Arctic ice cap, combined with the rise in the temperature of the Arctic Ocean, has started to release methane from the ocean floor. As well, as temperatures rise in the northern polar regions of Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, the permafrost melts, releasing even more methane into the atmosphere. The amounts of methane that could be released by both sea floor methyl hydrates and permafrost are staggeringly huge, and could dramatically accelerate the rate of climate change. If this trend continues, not only will the debate over climate change be over, but humanity will be forced to race to keep up with the potential changes.
As it happens, the vast majority of climate scientists – something approaching 95% – now agree that climate change is happening, and that humanity is at the very least a significant contributor to it. Since I speak to lots of different kinds of audiences, I can tell you that most groups now accept that climate change is happening, even those that have been among the most vocal doubters. The doubts they now raise are more along the lines of whether humanity is to blame. But from my point of view, it no longer matters: if your house is on fire, you don’t throw gasoline on the fire, regardless of how it started. That’s roughly the position we’re in now.
In 2012, we will get more information about the release of methane, and can only pray for good news. Meanwhile, brace yourself for more strange, and increasingly extreme weather. And because climate is a chaotic system (where chaos theory is a branch of mathematics), it is literally unpredictable. This means we can’t tell whether we will get floods or drought, hurricanes or tornados, or something else unforeseen. But it won’t be business as usual, either.
7) Innovation as Steve Jobs’ legacy. Jobs didn’t invent innovation, but he sure popularized it! Innovation has become a corporate religion in recent years, and with good reason: innovation can allow you to disrupt the marketplace, scoop up market share, increase profits, and win friends and influence people, just as Jobs and Apple have done. Yet, innovation is hard, especially because there’s a natural resistance to change and to the real risk-taking that innovation requires.
But if there is a theme for the corporate world in 2012, it is that now is the time to get serious about innovation. As an innovation specialist who runs seminars and workshops for corporate clients, I’m seeing this on a daily basis in genetic and medical research, agriculture, the automotive industry, the insurance industry and finance generally, plus just about every other sector of the economy. And technology itself embodies innovation. Indeed, the idea of a technological company not working hard at innovation seems like recipe for extinction. The world is changing rapidly, and there are lots of new opportunities – and disasters – out there. It’s raining soup, but if you just stand there, looking up in surprise, you’ll drown!
8) Who dares, wins. Such is the motto of Britain’s fabled SAS – one of the world’s premier commando groups. But their motto applies equally to unsettled times. During such times, it’s easy and very, very tempting to hunker down, conserving cash, and wait for lazy, easy times to return. But study after study shows that companies that continue to market aggressively, and pursue research into new ideas, new products, and better results for their customers make far more inroads with modest expenditures during bad times than spending far more during good times, when everyone else is competing hard. Moreover, loyalty is won when times are bad, both among consumers, and among employees. And best of all, you can often accomplish a great deal with careful planning and foresight rather than lavish expenditures. This is where strategic planning comes to the fore. The time to be thoughtfully aggressive is when your competitors are playing turtle.
9) The Red Invaders. The emergence of a Chinese middle class not only means upward pressure on food and fuel prices, it also means a vast invasion of Chinese tourists bearing money. For those countries and regions able to attract such tourists, it means a new source of revenue, and a big shot in the arm. And, as with all ethnic groups, it also means serving them the way they want to be served in terms of language, food, and customs. To the winner go the mega-spoils.
10) Haggling returns to North American retailing. Smart retailers are recognizing that it’s no longer enough to post a sign saying “10% off” to attract consumers, but that consumers are more demanding now, and are moving away from the traditional “no haggle” approach to buying. Moreover, haggling offers two additional benefits to consumers: it’s become somewhat of a game where they can enjoy the thrill of the hunt; and it offers bragging rights when talking with their friends. As a result, haggling has been emerging in two different ways, one passive, and the other active.
The passive form of haggling is to wait for sales. You can witness this almost anywhere when consumers see an item they like in a store, and ask if it’s on sale. When they’re told that it’s not, they turn up their noses, and say they’ll wait until it is. This might be described as “temporal haggling”, where the consumer is saying, “I’ll wait until you lower the price before I buy it. And if you don’t lower it enough, I won’t buy it.” Smart stores are responding in creative ways. Some salespeople say, “No, that’s not on sale, but it will be starting next week,” which amounts to a counter-offer. A smart consumer will reply by saying, “Can you put it aside for me until then?”, implicitly offering to buy it if they do. Some salespeople say no, others say “Sure.” The net result is that store and consumer have haggled over the price to agree on a sale/purchase. Yet the smart retailer actually has an advantage in this exchange: they get to name the sale price in temporal haggling.
By comparison, in active, more traditional haggling the consumer takes the initiative, saying something like “What’s your best price on this widget?” If the salesperson replies with the sticker price, the haggle is over and the consumer leaves. If the salesperson names a price, the consumer responds dismissively, and says, “I wouldn’t pay a nickel over $X for that”, and the salesperson can choose to respond or not. This is, as I say, traditional marketplace haggling.
If a retailer wants to capitalize on the re-emergence of haggling into the North American marketplace, they need to anticipate it, and come up with a range of responses. One might be to say, “We can’t discount this item today, but it is going on sale next week. Would you like to put a deposit on it to hold it until then?” The retailer regains the initiative this way, and moves towards a close. Or better still, the retailer should look for a way to add value rather than cut price by making a counter-offer like, “No, I’m sorry, we can’t discount that item. But we can offer you a 50% discount on a matching accessory if you buy it.”
Regardless of approach, though, retailers should be prepared to return to marketplace haggling, and have a range of responses ready to deal with it. Consumers, as always, should decide what they want, and what their bottom line is in getting it.
11) Health care magic blossoms. Putting aside the issue of cost, which concerns everyone, the ability of health care to solve problems is beginning to move at computer speeds, in part because IT is increasingly being used by doctors, nurses, hospitals – and patients – to manage health care, and in part because research is increasingly being done using smart, powerful computer tools to perform research and execute treatments. Among the changes in the immediate future of health care are:
- The rapidly rising ability to repair failing hearts and minds (or at least brains) and other organs with stem cells. Stem cell treatments are starting to move out of the laboratory and into the operating room, and 2012 will see hundreds of people receiving this kind of therapy.
- Similarly, 3D printers, which have been in development for roughly 20 years, are now good enough that they are starting to be used to create replacement organs from a patient’s own tissue. This will gradually move into mainstream medicine, with replacement hearts, livers, and kidneys being at the top of the list.
- Quadriplegics will increasingly be able to interact with the world through prosthetics controlled by thought alone, either through electrodes that interpret brain wave patterns, or implanted chips which interpret specific thought-impulses.
- Retinal implants are starting to emerge that can help blind people discern light, shapes, and some objects. The implication is that we may be able to help aging boomers improve their failing eyesight as they age – one of the biggest complaints of old age!
- Health care is increasingly falling into the hands of the patient – literally. Smartphones, which are fundamentally wearable computers with all the capabilities of what used to be called “supercomputers”, can now work with Bluetooth-enabled sensors to monitor various aspects of health, from the vigor of your workout, to the health of your heart, to the level of your blood sugar. This will lead to a revolution in health management, with consumers sometimes way out in front of practitioner.
- Likewise, as patients become more and more comfortable with researching medical conditions and treatments online; they are demanding an increasing role in their own diagnosis and treatment; becoming active, important advocates for fund-raising and acceptance of treatments; and blunt critics of health care practitioners through social media and word of mouth. Smart practitioners are accepting this trend and rolling with it. Old school practitioners are resisting, but may wind up steamrolled by it.
- Crowdsourcing of tough diagnoses, and novel solutions to the medical and financial problems of health care promise to open yet another front in the health care revolution. This follows on with the success of crowdsourcing in helping leading-edge research scientists in astronomy (galaxyzoo.org) and protein research (Foldit game softwear).
- Sequencing your genome gets cheap. Sequencing the first genome cost billions of dollars and took decades to perform (culminating in the Human Genome Project). Today it costs about $1,000 (although analysis costs significantly more). Within 10 years, it will cost $100, and analysis will cost about $500 more, and will provide you a complete run-down of where your vulnerabilities lie, and what you can do to forestall future health problems. For 2012, we will see incremental advances towards that goal, with major diseases identified, and a short list of things you do – and don’t – want to do or eat prescribed. This is the true beginning of personalized medicine, and it will revolutionize health care.
12) Technology accelerates in 2012. It’s hard to know what to leave out: electronic mind-reading? Glasses that emit sounds and smells to allow you to enhance social media? The proliferating tablets and smartphones with ever-more wondrous abilities? Here’s a partial list of things I think demonstrate trends that will become increasingly important:
- 3D printers – As well as making replacement organs, 3D printers are coming into the price range of consumers, and may mean that you can buy your own desktop factory. Need a replacement screw for a door? Make it yourself. Need to duplicate a key? Ditto. See a nifty device on TV? Download the plans and make it yourself. Of course, who knows what the ink cartridges will cost.
- Near-eye monitors – These look like glasses, but are computer monitors. They’re the lineal descendents of jet fighter heads-up displays, and will revolutionize the way we use computers, particularly smartphones, but have been hampered by high costs. Prices are starting to approach luxury consumer levels, so applications will start to appear in things like immersive gaming, personal entertainment theaters, medical imaging, and augmented reality.
- Augmented reality through your smartphone – Augmented reality is overlaying information on top of the view from your Mark 1 eyeball, much as Google Street View overlays the names of shops on a photo. You’ll be able to hold up your smartphone’s camera and have your phone overlay directions, stores, infrastructure views, or whatever else might be useful to you. This gets better when you can view the results in your near-eye monitors.
- Cloud computing explodes – Owning a computer is so 2010. Cloud computing is rapidly placing the resources of today’s supercomputers in your hands for pennies a minute. One researcher used one of the commercial clouds to try to break his password to a social media website by brute force, just to see if he could do it. Using the cloud and standard code-breaking techniques he did it in minutes, and it cost him 39¢. As the tools to harness this power get more powerful and easier to use, the potential of the cloud will be adapted by more and more users.
- Siri & copycats + babbling to your smartphone – Siri is an application of the iPhone 4S that allows you to speak to your iPhone and get it to do things for you. This might be setting a count-down timer, converting milliliters to fluid ounces, finding an address and directions from your present location, or looking up a phone number (all of which I’ve done). Apple is offering this technology as a beta version now, but every Siri request goes through Apple’s servers. This means the potential exists to assess what people want to do, and come up with solutions, improving the results really quickly, making personal avatars (also called PDAs, butlers, or assistants) much more valuable in short order. And that means everyone will rush into the field. This will lead to lots of really bad copycat applications, but ultimately a revolution in how we use technology.
- Biometric passwords – Our world is becoming so full of passwords that need to be foolproof (meaning our tendency to forget them) that biometric passwords are almost inevitable, and they are beginning to appear. They will be expensive at first, but gradually retina, fingerprint, voiceprint, and other means of making sure you are you will become cheap and commonplace, and then you will become your own password, no memory required.
- Robots – Everyday robots are here, but they are clunky, expensive, or just plain cute. That’s changing very quickly, and 2012 will see more and more of them appearing in more and more places. Typically these will be commercial settings, but health care is one place where robots make sense and will be used. Rosie the Robot won’t be washing your dishes this year, but she’s coming – if you’re willing to pony up the equivalent of the price of a luxury car.