Normally, in an election year, you can count on the sitting president, even a lame duck, to prop up the economy with discretionary spending and tax breaks that give voters an incentive to reelect the party in power. That usually translates to a rosy stock market.
But not this White House. And not this stock market. The president’s been blessed with a good economy for five years, so good that the administration hasn’t had to focus on it. Now that it has to, because of a massive housing crisis it should have prevented, the administration is once again displaying its knack for gross incompetence. It needs aggressive help from one man, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, who needs to slash rates quickly if Bush and company want to save the country from a recession and prevent a clean sweep by the Democrats, whoever gets the nomination.
But the Fed chairman’s not playing ball. He’s the paragon of caution when caution’s the most reckless course. That’s how quickly housing’s contagion has spread, thanks to tight money and reduced spending. Between the president’s ineffectuality and Bernanke’s rank amateurism, we’re at the mercy of a struggling economy and, perhaps, for the first time in a half-dozen years, facing a down stock market.
That doesn’t mean we can’t make money in 2008. It does, however, mean that the average stock will find it tough sledding for a while, and, unless the Fed starts waking up, you may be better off waiting to buy until we see lower prices later in the year. With that somewhat grim backdrop, let’s take a look at what could happen, and how to profit from it, even if it’s best to wait a while to jump in. What follows are my top-ten financial predictions for 2008—some mortal locks, others long shots, in that order.
1. Goldman Sachs makes more money than every other brokerage firm in New York combined and finishes the year at $300 a share. Not a prediction—an inevitability. In fact, it’s only January, and I think it’s already come true.
2. Oil goes much higher, maybe as much as $125 a barrel. That sends gasoline to $5 a gallon, even at those terrific service stations outside the Holland Tunnel. Pundits keep blaming the endless rise on geopolitics, but in the latter half of 2007, we saw reduced tension in Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela, plus flat-out production by the Saudis and the Russians, and all that happened is the price went from the $70s to the $90s. We are running out of oil more quickly than people can imagine, and that means great returns for oil companies. Just buy the stock of the company you filled up at today or buy a driller (Transocean’s my favorite), then sit back and make money. The odds oil will rise? Two to 1. The $125-per-barrel target might be pushing it, but higher oil is pretty much a sure thing.
3. The Fed arranges an Arabic Heimlich maneuver on Citigroup, so the banking giant doesn’t choke on the worst mortgage portfolio in the country. Rather than face the demise of the biggest U.S. bank, and the panic its fall could trigger, Congress looks the other way as Arab investors buy 51 percent of the somnambulant bank. Unfortunately for Citigroup, I’d lay 3 to 1 on this happening. I say “unfortunately,” but I shouldn’t. It’s unfortunate that a proud institution basically has to give up its autonomy, but its stock would go up considerably once it got that capital.
4. Verizon becomes your cable provider. In one of the most remarkable frog-to-prince transformations I’ve seen, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg offers an alternative, Fios, that is better and cheaper than anything Time Warner, Cablevision, or Comcast can produce. Throw in Verizon’s growing cell-phone business and growth accelerates dramatically, making VZ the best-performing stock in the Dow Jones averages. Time Warner and Comcast hit new lows, and the retreat of cable begins. Sorry, cable guys: We’re looking at 4 to 1 here.
5. In the first real debacle of the private-equity era, Cerberus Capital Management, the quiet hedge-fund king, fails in its bid to resuscitate Chrysler—not a surprising turn, given that it picked Bob “I ruined Home Depot and all I got was $200 million” Nardelli to run the country’s worst car company. The combination of Chrysler and the 51 percent of GM’s lousy mortgage business that it paid top dollar for forces former Treasury secretary John Snow to seek a bailout for Cerberus. Amazingly, given the love of hedge-fund contributions by both parties, Congress agrees and writes checks for billions to save Cerberus’ wealthy investors. Call the Chrysler failure a lock. The bailout? I’d say 5 to 1.
6. Google continues its dominance and becomes one of the top three companies in the U.S. in market capitalization. It doubles its advertising share, at the expense of television and print. It also successfully challenges Microsoft for operating-system dominance. Microsoft calls for a government investigation of Google’s power, but no one cares because Microsoft is just too hated for anyone in Washington to champion. The stock roars to $1,000. I like Google enough to put this one at 7 to 1. If you use an $800 target, make it 5 to 2.
7. European companies, eyeing the weak dollar, snap up New York real estate, and offer to buy Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan. John Thain and Jamie Dimon, the companies’ respective CEOs, agree to the bids (Thain sold a chunk of stock to a foreign entity just last week). Colgate, Clorox, Whirlpool, and Black & Decker get snapped up, too. All six companies’ stock prices head north. Lots of moving parts, but let’s put the odds of at least one of these deals happening at 3 to 1. A perfect Pick Six pays 50 to 1.
8. Apple completes its dominance of the music business, as the music producers decide no longer to produce new CDs. It’s just too expensive for them. Warner Music Group files for bankruptcy. Apple goes to $300. Okay, these may not be 2008 events, but they will happen, sooner rather than later. This year: 25 to 1. Next year: 5 to 1.
9. The New York Times, after spending several hundred million dollars buying back its stock while it was in the $30s and $40s, slashes its dividend in half because of a cash shortage. The stock drops to $10. To save the world’s greatest newspaper, the company accepts a buyout offer from Mayor Michael Bloomberg at $20 a share. Don’t be so quick to scoff: The cash is spare change for Bloomberg, who, don’t forget, already owns a small media company. I’d say the $10 share price is even money. That’s how bad it is at the Times. The Bloomberg buyout is probably a 100-to-1 shot, but may be less if he decides not to run for president and needs something else to do this year.
10. An Army of the Foreclosed marches on the White House, then launches a siege at the Federal Reserve, before camping out in front of the Washington Monument. The army demands relief from eviction. Bernanke, recognizing that he did nothing to regulate the mortgage mess in 2006 and then did not cut rates fast enough in ’07, resigns. The siege ends, the new guy slashes rates, and the market takes off. Here, the odds are 1,000 to 1 (as Marx taught us, people have a hard time losing their chains). But if Bernanke or a future Fed chair does cut rates meaningfully, here’s a sure bet: That’s the time to start buying.
James J. Cramer is co-founder of TheStreet.com. He often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns and articles, both before and after they are published, and the positions he takes may change at any time. At the time of this writing, he owned Goldman Sachs, Transocean, and Citigroup for his charitable trust. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. To discuss or read previous columns, go to James J. Cramer’s page at nymag.com/cramer.