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Kass: 15 Surprises for 2011

Stocks in this article: YHOO BEN MCD

Only the remnants anticipated anything near the magnitude of the fall in the world's economies and capital markets, despite what appeared to be clear and accumulating evidence of economic uncertainty and growing credit risks (and abuses). The analysis of multidecade charts and economic series convinced most (along with other conclusions) that home prices were incapable of ever dropping, that derivatives and no-/low-document mortgage loans were safe, that there was no level of leverage (institutional and individual) too high and that rating agencies were responsible in their analysis. Importantly, they also failed to see the signposts of an imminent deterioration in business and consumer confidence that was to result in the deepest economic and credit crisis since the early 1930s.

From my perch, many of those who are now expressing the most extreme levels of optimism were the most wrong-footed two years ago and experienced not inconsequential pain in the last investment cycle. (Perhaps the recovery in equities was so swift in time and sizable in magnitude that memories simply have been erased to the risks that are still omnipresent today.)

Back then and, to a lesser degree, today, many investors appear similar to victims of Plato's allegory of the cave, a parable about the difficulty of people who exist in a world shaped by false perceptions to contemplate truths that contradict their beliefs. This is why so many investors were blindsided by the last downturn and, from my perch, continue to remain conditioned to wearing rose-colored glasses.

In the famous simile of the cave, Plato compares men to prisoners in a cave who are bound and can look in only one direction. They have a fire behind them and see on a wall the shadows of themselves and of objects behind them. Since they see nothing but the shadows, they regard those shadows as real and are not aware of the objects. Finally one of the prisoners escapes and comes from the cave into the light of the sun. For the first time, he sees real things and realizes that he had been deceived hitherto by the shadows. For the first time, he knows the truth and thinks only with sorrow of his long life in the darkness.

-- Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy

Last year's surprise list had relatively poor results. Only about 40% of my surprises were achieved in 2010, well under the success ratio in previous years. By means of background, about 50% of my 2009 surprises were realized, 60% in 2008, 50% in 2007, one-third in 2006 , one-fifth in 2005, 45% in 2004 and one-third came to pass in the first year of our surprises in 2003.

While my surprise list for 2010 hit on some of the important themes that dominated the investment and economic landscape this year, I failed to expect the announcement of further quantitative easing and did not accurately gauge investors' animal spirits that followed the proclamation of QE2.

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