The recession is over,” says Bill O’Neil, portfolio strategist at Merrill Lynch’s Chief Investment Office in London. That is the sentiment one gets when reading Merrill Lynch’s “Year Ahead 2010” report, authored by O’Neil. Speaking to Executive in Beirut as part of a whirlwind tour across the Middle East and North Africa region, O’Neil stressed that the global recovery would be “subpar” due to the nature of this recession, given that it was built around a banking crisis.
The nature of the recovery has been the topic of much contention during this current downturn. Talk of the recovery curve being a “W”, “V”, “U” or “L” has been bantered about in economic literature, but with little consensus. As far as Merrill Lynch and O’Neil are concerned, the recovery will take the form of a “lazy V.”
Fear across the globe of a double dip, or “W-shaped” recovery, is unwarranted, according to O’Neil, given the particular elements he sees as carrying the world through 2010. The policy stimuli that typified late 2008 and 2009 will continue to fend off any unexpected dives, claims O’Neil, such as the one warded off in Dubai when Abu Dhabi stepped in and bailed-out the faltering emirate. This, coupled with close-to-zero interests rates, will allow the financial recovery to seep into the real economy thought 2010 — albeit producing lackluster results compared to previous economic upturns because of the “headwinds,” which will continue to affect the “speed limit of revival.”
The roller coaster tapers off
What stands out from the Year Ahead 2010 report is the predictions. Merrill Lynch believes that the current rally of the euro against the dollar will recede in 2010, landing the euro at $1.38 by June, and falling to $1.28 by the end of the year. O’Neil claims that the dollar slump will reach its end as the “overvalued” euro readjusts, and “undervalued” emerging market currencies come under more pressure to de-peg from the dollar and come into their own.
According to the report, an average price of $85 per barrel of oil is foreseen “above the forward curve.” The long-term aspect is even more promising as “monetary stimulus chases too few oil barrels,” said the report. Rising oil prices will be, in particular, the result of what O’Neil sees as raising emerging market demand, which would on its own push the price of oil over $100 per barrel. “Western markets cannot tolerate a $100 barrel,” he quips.
Other commodities are also expected to do well in the medium term. Gold in particular is predicted to hit $1,500 per ounce as it is affected by three factors: credit risk, dollar weakness and the strength of commodities. O’Neil, however, “wouldn’t be surprised” to see gold consolidate in the near term at $1,000 per ounce if the dollar rises considerably. “Gold will still have a financial following in terms of the ETF [exchange traded funds] demand on the basis that it is a hedge against some sort of policy miscalculation or failure,” he says.
While fears over Dubai defaulting have been allayed for the time being, O’Neil says the continued presence of large amounts of debt will have a detrimental effect on offshore capital confidence, which has been “shattered” by the recent Dubai World debt standstill fiasco.
“There is an inconsistency, unpredictability, and a lack of transparency that has produced an unpredictable set of events. Markets are going to insist on a substantial risk premium in that environment in terms of funding ventures,” says O’Neil in reference to Dubai. Much of Dubai’s financial future will continue to depend, he reckons, on the actions of Abu Dhabi and its sovereign wealth fund, which contains $500 billion to $600 billion, according to O’Neil.
“There is an inconsistency, unpredictability, and a lack of transparency that has produced an unpredictable set of events. Markets are going to insist on a substantial risk premium in that environment in terms of funding ventures,” he adds, in reference to Dubai. Therefore Merrill Lynch’s prediction of just 2 percent growth in the United Arab Emirates in 2010 seems to hold merit.
What has been a roller coaster year for the world and the region looks to become less harrowing in 2010, though O’Neil insists that the ride is not over. He does, however, single out one region as being more or less a rock in the storm: “Offshore of the Levant, there is nothing normal about the current situation.”
Editor’s note: The original article was edited on January 20, 2010 to reflect the accurate Euro to US Dollar projection.