2012: The horizon and the abyss

German chancellor Angela Merkel Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Much of 2012's fortunes depend on German chancellor Angela Merkel

So ends a year that went from bad to worse, starting with signs of weak recovery, ending with signs of a return to downturn.

Let's not be entirely pessimistic, though. The Lloyds TSB Scotland business monitor, published this week, is further evidence of a stalled economy.

But it's not saying we're bound to hit another recession in 2012. And the direction of travel, towards negative balance of results for autumn and outlook for the first half of next year, covers the reality of improving figures for many.

That's to say, 33% of companies saw turnover decline in autumn. Not good. But 30% saw it improve.

The survey doesn't say by how much, in either case. But in some sectors - notably in energy - there isn't much to be pessimistic about.

So what does next year hold? I'll avoid making any forecasts, partly because that's asking for humiliation this time next year, but mainly because so much in 2012 depends on one variable, and that variable depends on one woman.

Profound impact

Either Angela Merkel throws Germany's weight behind the eurozone's sovereign debts, or she doesn't.

And if she doesn't, it's hard to see the crisis being resolved during 2012. Indeed, a deeper crisis looks very likely. While its shape and timing is unpredictable, its impact will surely be profound, and not only within the eurozone.

So there appear to be two scenarios for 2012; either a muddling through a tough-going first half, with hopes of activity picking up a bit in the second half, or something highly unpredictable and, in the short term at least, entirely on the downside, perhaps catastrophically.

While stopping short of forecasts, here are some other business issues worth watching in 2012:

  • Corporate debt. A lot of it needs rolled over in 2012. It will help that large corporate's balance sheets are one part of the economy in rude health.
  • Property bubbles aren't over. One to watch is in China. Another is the British house price bubble. Happily, it didn't burst with the credit crunch. Instead, it's been gradually deflated. Unhappily for home-owners and the property business, it doesn't seem that process is finished.
  • In renewable energy, will Scotland begin to grow its manufacturing base? It's got some valuable jobs so far, but it's not got many actually making stuff.
  • What role will business play in shaping Scotland's constitutional future? Nationalists will continue to build their case, with business cheerleaders helping out.

But pro-union politicians are struggling to find common ground, a clear message, strategy and a leader. Is there someone from outside politics - perhaps in business - who could take up that leadership role?

  • The London Olympics will come, and go. There's a golden opportunity for tourism businesses marketing the appeal of a Scottish getaway from the Olympian hype in London and south-east England.