Some thoughts on the year ahead

It seems a bit of a mug’s game at the moment to try to predict what the future will bring. As black swan after black swan swoops past, it becomes abundantly clear just how uncertain things can be. And how little we actually know about the year ahead. But everyone else is having a punt at what 2023 will bring, so here’s my own contribution to our collective assessment of the next twelve months.

In world affairs, the war in – or, rather, for – Ukraine will continue unabated. The West will provide President Zelensky with ongoing financial, political and limited military support. But it will remain wary of provoking Russia into acting aggressively towards any NATO members, such as by giving Ukraine longer-range weapons that could be used to attack Russia. Putin will try to use this reticience to his advantage, but a lack of strategic planning skills and absence of reliable information from the ground mean that this will probably backfire.

China probably won’t invade Taiwan, but in an effort to save face over his less-than-perfect handling of COVID, President Xi will ratched up the rhetoric to shore up support at home. This will focus mostly on goading the US, both verbally and with military ‘exercises’. It’s possible, if things go really badly domestically, that China might do something like blockade Taiwan (as Gideon Rachman has suggested in the FT), but this seems unlikely. Things will simmer, but probably (and hopefully) not boil over. Not yet, anyway.

Here in the UK, we’ll manage to retain the current Prime Minister for the whole year. But things will get ugly within the Conservative party, with various factions angry that there isn’t the money/time/support for them to get their way on whatever issue they’ve hung their collective hats on. We’ll also experience more strikes, as below-inflation pay offers and a deterioration in working conditions drive more workers to take action. And they’ll do so with a surprisingly high level of public support.

On the economic front, interest rates probably won’t go a huge amount higher, but they won’t get any lower, either. Inflation will also stay high. After a nightmare year in 2022, stock and bond markets will probably finish 2023 at about the same level they’re at now, but with a few ups and downs in the intervening period. The ‘downs’ will, as usual, correlate closely with me investing further in my own (sadly very meagre) portfolio. Governments around the world will continue to lambast crypto currencies. Until, that is, they’re ready to launch their own.

After a winter of high gas and electricity bills, the real energy crisis will start in the autumn. Europe had a good supply of Russian gas until the middle of 2022, so we’re going into the colder months with full storage reserves. These will be substantially depleted by next winter, and we’ll not have been able to refill them. Any gas that Putin might have sold to Europe will be diverted to India and China instead. The UK will fare slightly better than mainland Europe, but only just. Blackouts can’t be ruled out.

We’ll remain very much in a COVID pandemic. There will be – and, indeed, already are – new variants that cause significant concern among virologists and public health professionals. More people will get sick, but high levels of vaccination – in the UK at least – will protect many from serious harm. Others around the world won’t be so fortunate. The UK Government will say it’s not necessary to introduce any form of public restrictions, but many people will go back to masking, social distancing and self-isolation anyway as infection rates rise.

There will be more talk about climate change and about the dire and irreversible effect it is having on our collective ability to thrive – and even simply to survive – on our planet. There will be more wildfires, hurricanes, floods and other adverse weather events. But there will be little tangible action from Governments around the world. The COP 28 meeting in Dubai (yes, Dubai) will fail to produce anything of lasting value. In the meantime, the poorest people and nations around the world will continue to suffer because of the excesses of those who have the most.

From a work perspective, we will continue to struggle with the sometimes-at-home-sometimes-in-the-office arrangements that have become so common. Many people will get frustrated, with their colleagues and with themselves. We will remain unable to find a way of running hybrid workplace meetings that actually works. We will all engage in more face-to-face events over the course of the year (I’ve already signed up for two in-person conferences), but we will have to re-learn the art of small talk in order to do so.

Something utterly bizarre and completely unexpected will no doubt happen at some point. This may or may not involve Elon Musk.

We will get to the end of the year with a collective sigh of relief. But our relief won’t last long, because it’s in 2024 that things will really kick off. We’ll have a UK parliamentary election. There’s the next US presidential election. And we’ll almost certainly breach 1.5 degrees of global warming. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Whatever your plans are for 2023, look after yourself and those around you. And let’s hope that things turn out better than expected.

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