Investing isn't always exciting. In this age of deleveraging, which began in 2007 and probably has another five to seven years to run, my investment themes this year look a lot like my themes from last year.
If there is something about 2012 that should make investors stand up and take notice, it's this: I look for a moderate US recession, a hard landing in China, and a severe recession in Europe – in sum, a global recession.
Fortunately, opportunities remain for investors in a landscape dominated by financial institutions, US consumers, and governments unwinding an immense buildup of debt. Here's my list of nine investment themes that encapsulate the best prospects for 2012:
1. Treasury bonds: They're a haven in an era of slow growth and deflation. They've been my most profitable investment in the past three decades.
2. High-quality income-producing securities: They shined last year as the stock market went nowhere. Municipal yields, compared with Treasurys, are probably high enough now to be attractive. The same is true for investment-grade corporate bonds. Companies that pay substantial, predictable, and increasing dividends may be coming back into style.
3. Small luxuries: Hard-pressed consumers tend to buy the very best of what they can afford. Some manufacturers and retailers are offering essentially the same products at lower prices by cutting their manufacturing costs. Another route to small luxury success is for companies to introduce new and improved models that make their predecessors obsolete. Apple is the master at this strategy.
4. Consumer staples and foods: Items like laundry detergent, bread, and toothpaste are basic essentials of life that are purchased in good times and bad, and I believe their producers' equities will be attractive relative to stocks in general in 2012. Among retailers of consumer staples, the winners may continue to be discounters, including dollar stores and used-merchandise stores.
5. The US dollar: In the long run, it's likely to remain the world's primary international trading and reserve currency because of rapid growth in the US economy and in per capita gross domestic product, promoted by robust productivity growth. Also, the United States has the world's biggest economy, and its financial markets are broad, deep, and open.
6. Selected health-care providers: They, as well as medical office buildings, remain attractive as demand in the US for medical services mushrooms over coming decades.
7. Rental apartments: They are still attractive because they will continue to benefit from the separation that Americans are making between their abodes and their investments. Apartments tend to be rented by foreclosure victims, those who don't want to buy houses, and by the growing number of postwar babies as they retire and downsize.
8. Productivity enhancers: In the ongoing environment of slow economic growth and deflation, many firms find it difficult to boost profits via price and volume increases. So anything – high tech, low tech, no tech – that helps them reduce costs and promote productivity will be in demand.
9. North American energy: I'm a fan because of the national resolve to reduce imports from unreliable foreign sources. My favorites include natural-gas producers, pipelines, oil sands, energy services, oil producers, nuclear energy, shale oil and gas, and maybe even coal. I remain skeptical of renewable energy activities because of their heavy dependence on federal subsidies.
– A. Gary Shilling heads an economic consulting firm in Springfield, N.J. His latest book is "The Age of Deleveraging."