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Thursday, July 25, 2024

2024 Predictions

Each year, we review/make predictions re the past/coming year. Most years, we hit more than we miss. But we do miss — if we made 10 predictions that all came true, that wouldn’t be predicting but stating the obvious. The caliber of a prediction is a function of what it reveals about the subject, how it frames or reframes a familiar topic, and whether it inspires a productive dialogue. Here’s how we did in 2023, followed by our predictions for 2024.

And our predictions for 2024…

U.S. Inflation Drops Below the Fed’s Target of 2.5%

One year ago, Bloomberg’s economic model calculated the probability of a recession at 100%. At Prof G, we predicted inflation would come down as fast as it had accelerated. Our thesis was simple: When the world predicts a disaster, it doesn’t materialize, because we make a concerted effort to prevent it. Call it the Y2K Theory.

I thought this was a no-brainer. Dartmouth economist Danny Blanchflower has highlighted that well-run modern economies don’t experience sustained inflation, as inflation cures itself … so to speak. (High prices quell demand, which lowers prices.) In addition, the supply chain is getting un-gunked, and we have a gangster Fed chairman who took pleasure in ignoring pressure from Senator Warren and others to keep rates low. Finally, I believe AI — like most technologies — is deflationary, as it helps firms do more with less. In a little over a year, inflation has gone from 9% to 3%. Look for this downward momentum to continue. Time’s Person of the year was Taylor Swift, but the most consequential person of the year was Chairman Powell.

Housing Sales Boom

When tectonic plates shift, the main shock is followed by aftershocks in outlying areas. The tectonic shift of the past two years was interest rates, which climbed faster than in any period in U.S. history. Now that the fight appears to be (almost) over, the plates are readjusting: Last month the Fed signaled it would cut rates in 2024.

We’re in for a series of aftershocks, and the most consequential will occur in housing. In the past 40 years, we’ve experienced a doubling in housing prices, while household income has risen just 20%. In 2024 expect to see a boom in housing sales volume.

The runup in housing prices has been a perfect storm of choked volume: Low interest rates on existing mortgages have locked people in, people are living longer, Nimbyism has restricted new construction, and household earnings aren’t keeping pace with housing prices. The result: Home ownership is increasingly sequestered to the olds. Housing in America over the past four decades has been a proxy for economic policies writ large, a concerted transfer of wealth from young to old. Reduced interest rates, coupled with pent-up demand (new jobs, kids, life events), will drop like prunes through the colon of housing in 2024.

State legislatures and zoning boards have (sort of) gotten the memo that more housing is desperately needed. Unemployment is low, and young workers are facing historically strong prospects. A sweetener? The real estate agent cartel might finally break, reducing transaction costs for buyers and sellers.

Paramount Consolidated, Disney Consolidator

We presented this in our Predictions livestream on December 12, and, less than a month later, it’s already happening. News broke before Christmas that Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav had met with Paramount CEO Bob Bakish regarding a merger. This trend will continue — watch for any streaming service that isn’t owned by WBD, Netflix, or Disney to be acquired in the coming year. Continued viability in streaming will be a function of scale: In the midst of a writers’ strike, which you’d think would put pressure on studios, Netflix raised prices. The strike was a transfer of wealth from the traditional studios to NFLX, and it has expedited market dynamics: consolidation and rationalization across the number of players and spend, respectively.

Two Stock Picks: Streaming Laggards

Every year I make stock picks — a bad idea, but it’s fun. Last year I picked Airbnb, Meta, and Chinese internet stocks, which rose 60%,180%, and -15% respectively. My thesis wasn’t that these companies would do anything extraordinary. Rather, the market had soured on them (especially Meta), forgetting that the existing businesses are cash volcanoes.

My stock picks this year are Warner Brothers Discovery and Disney, because the tech sector, in my view, is fully valued (Latin for overvalued). Tech’s P/E multiples look frighteningly similar to 1999 and 2007. This year I like distressed assets, and DIS and WBD could reasonably qualify, as they are trading at decade lows. Disney’s EBITDA multiple is 16.3 — significantly lower than its five-year historical average of 34. This is a presidential election year, and the likely opponent was engineered in a lab to foment the outrage and attention that sell TV ads. In addition, WBD is slowly but surely paying down its debt — once the balance sheet looks cleaner, the Street will turn, and Netflix has provided cloud cover to raise prices. Disney benefits from moats that are singular: its parks business and a streaming network that is differentiated (with its family-friendly slant and unique IP) enough to be able to compete with NFLX and WBD.

TikTok Comes for Netflix and Spotify

Bar one door, and the wolf shows up at the next. We tend to focus on competition between similar products, i.e. Netflix vs. Disney, Spotify vs. Apple Music. But entertainment is one market, the market for attention, and one platform is ahead of everyone else in harvesting the commodity: TikTok. The Chinese (and it is Chinese) company had the most ascendant platform in history until OpenAI, and it remains the frame through which Western youth perceive the world. If the last sentence sounds like a description of an existential threat to democracy and liberal values, trust your instincts. 2024 is the year we’ll see TikTok take share from streamers.

Peak AI

Last year we said AI would be the tech of the year. This year the AI bubble won’t burst, but it will deflate. This is inevitable because of overinvestment: More than a quarter of U.S. venture funding went to AI startups last year, and 4 in 5 American unicorns are now AI-related. The biggest AI startups, OpenAI and Anthropic, are valued at 180 and 200 times sales, respectively. Compare that to, say, Uber: 3.

This isn’t to say AI won’t create immense value in 2024 — it will. However, that value is already reflected in the equities of the seven companies (Microsoft, Alphabet, Apple, Tesla, Amazon, Meta, and the newcomer to the club, Nvidia) that drove the majority of the run-up in equities in 2023. The markets will need to look elsewhere for inspiration.

We’re already seeing it in corporate PR, as the rate of AI mentions in S&P 500 earnings calls dropped from 35% to 29%. Expect that number to sink lower.

Big Tech Stock Pick: Alphabet

Last year we speculated that Meta would best the other Big Tech stocks; this year we believe it will be Alphabet. In this case, large language models are the refineries and proprietary content is the fossil fuel. And Google Search, Gmail, and YouTube are the Orinoco River basin. As Reuters obsesses over whom the New York Times licenses its content to, Alphabet will build a thick layer of AI on top of your email, search habits, and YouTube viewing to make life more efficient and entertaining. OpenAI is Star Wars; Alphabet is The Empire Strikes Back. BTW, I watched Alien and Aliens with my son last night. I still think Aliens is the best sequel ever produced, and Lieutenant First Class Ellen Louise Ripley is the premier sci-fi protagonist of the 20th century. But I digress.

Tech of the Year: GLP-1

If 2023 was the year of GPT-4, 2024 will be the year of GLP-1. That is, Ozempic, Mounjaro, and all GLP-1-related weight loss technology. The market is massive and ripe for disruption. More than 70% of our nation is obese or overweight. The prevalence of obesity has tripled in the past 50 years, and the cost of obesity in the U.S. — including indirect costs and productivity losses — is estimated to be $1.7 trillion. We’ve written about this before. America is the land of the free and the home of the plus-sized. A huge swath of our economy is run on a lie — that obesity is finding “your truth” — that enables the industrial food complex to addict you to shitty, unhealthy food and then hand you off to the Diabetes Industrial Complex. Bill Maher ribbed me for saying GLP would have a greater impact on the real economy than AI. I stand by it.

Right now, the New York City neighborhood with the greatest penetration of GLP-1 prescriptions is also the thinnest (the Upper East Side) as the drug is mostly being given to wealthy ladies who lunch looking to lose that last stubborn 15 pounds. As investment in GLP-1s increases, their cost will come down and access will expand. This will have a ripple effect beyond pharma — fast food companies, including McDonald’s and Pepsi, will be affected as consumers reduce consumption. The biggest query for the consumer economy: What would America look like if it were thinner and less diabetic?

India Is the New China

In 2023, India became the world’s most populous country. In 2024 that population growth will register in economic terms. The transition is two-sided: India is investing in infrastructure and courting foreign investment, while China is investing in aircraft carriers and turning its gaze inward to deal with youth unemployment and sectors crashing. Evidence of the baton transfer: Apple is aggressively shifting iPhone production to the other side of the Himalayas.

Geopolitics: U.S.-China Relations Thaw

Expect China to dial down the brinkmanship in an attempt to stanch the bleeding of foreign capital. The Chinese economy is the sickest it’s been in generations, and the only treatment with proven efficacy is foreign investment flowing through local manufacturing. Eventually, China will have to figure out how to build housing and luxury cars for its own market without incurring massive debt. The West has an inflation problem; China a growth problem. Feels as if the two largest economies need to kiss and make up. They will.

Geopolitics: Saudi Arabia and Israel Normalize Relations

This was on the horizon before October 7, but the conventional wisdom is that the Hamas attacks and Israeli response have torpedoed normalization. Short of a broader regional war, the logic of a tie-up remains inescapable. The Saudi strategy in a world less reliant on oil is to be the swing vote, the nation that garners outsize power by getting along just well enough with everyone to have a seat at every table, a vote in every majority. My gut on this is based on an observation I made during my arrested adolescence tour to Mykonos last summer. In sum, nearly every table at the nightclubs was populated by young men from the Gulf. The Saudis are pivoting from Islamism to capitalism. They have the largest economy in the region and have said little about the Israel-Gaza war.

Musk Loses Control of Twitter (Or Sells It)

We need to stop talking about Musk as if he’s a runaway teen. In two years he’ll be eligible to live in most senior communities and people are tired of childlike behavior from a near-senior citizen. Musk’s wealth is largely tied up in Tesla and SpaceX, holdings he does not want to sell. He has borrowed heavily against both, and even the world’s wealthiest man can have cash-flow issues.

Even after Elon fired 80% of Twitter, it’s still an expensive hobby, and he’s continuing to drive away his blackmailers (i.e.,advertisers). Plus the company, and by extension Elon, face years of payments on the debt used to fund the acquisition. Elon’s ambitions are bigger than social media, and in 2024 he’ll prioritize Tesla and SpaceX over platforming people like Alex Jones, who monetize misery. Spoiler alert: None of this has anything to do with free speech.

Meta’s 2024 Growth Vehicle: WhatsApp

Facebook and Instagram are still huge, profitable businesses, but we don’t talk about them much, because what drives Big Tech valuations is growth. Meta has been keeping its third horse in the barn for years, but there’s dormant upside in a platform with 3 billion users that will soon stir. Zuck has been hinting at a monetization strategy for years and nibbling at services associated with WhatsApp. 2024 is the year the Xenomorph Internecivus Raptus bursts from Meta’s abdomen. (See above: Alien.)

Political Prediction: Biden Gets Reelected, and Trump Gets Sentenced

The truth of presidential politics is that the voters who actually decide elections — swing voters, independents, etc. — don’t pay attention to politics. That’s why they are swing voters, because they don’t spend three and a half years in a hermetically sealed echo chamber. It’s likely when they head to their polling place we’ll have low inflation, high employment, a strong economy, conflicts around the globe that don’t involve U.S. troops, and a GOP nominee who’s been convicted by a jury of his peers for crimes against the United States.

The evidence for that last prediction will be submitted at three separate trials, and the odds of beating all three are terrible: Defendants accused of federal felonies have only a 30% chance of avoiding prison time in just one trial — beating the rap in three trials comes in at a 2.7% probability (30% * 30% * 30%). In 2024 we’ll be channel-surfing between a reality show, watching a criminal attempt to mug a senior citizen, and a game show where the player’s job is to delay court cases until after he’s elected president so he can pardon himself. Jesus, we feel so fucked up right now.

Learner’s Permit

I ended ’23 with several days in the passenger seat of a car, forcing myself not to scream “slow down!” or “speed up!”  My son is learning to drive. In 1980 my mom, after coming home from nine hours at her job as a secretary at an insurance company in the San Fernando Valley, would spend an hour teaching me to drive a manual transmission Opel Manta. My daily sojourns through the 7th ring of Learner’s Permit hell made me feel closer to my future and past. I wish the same for you in 2024: stress, joy, and a  grasp of time’s (in)finite nature. All in the presence of people you love.

Life is so rich,

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