New highs, old lows – things to watch out for in 2019

Making predictions in the world of business and economics is a fool’s errand but that’s no reason not to have a crack at it. Here are some things to look out for in 2019, which could be a rollercoaster ride.

Global gloom and doom
How about global recession, a US-China trade war and a chaotic Brexit for starters? Any or all of these could cast a shadow over people and businesses the world over.

The greatest unknown for British business and the economy lies in the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. The automotive industry has warned that production lines could be halted and investment choked off, while Airbus said it would be forced to cut jobs and pull billions of pounds in UK spending. Between them, carmakers and the European aerospace giant support around 1m jobs. That’s before one begins to assess the impact on industries such as pharmaceuticals, aviation, food and drink or London’s financial sector.

Then there’s the prospect that the early skirmishes of a Sino-US trade war turn into full-blown hostility. There’s no telling what Donald Trump will do or say next so any optimism that the spectre of mutually assured destruction will bring everyone back from the brink seems naive.

Trade wars, coupled with higher interest rates in major economies such as the US, could place greater drag on a global economy that already seems to be cooling, particularly in Europe and Asia. However, respected economist Nouriel Roubini has said a crash won’t come until 2020. You’ve got to take your crumbs of comfort where you can.

The next Carillion?
Ever since the outsourcing and construction firm’s ignominious collapse a year ago, pundits and short-sellers have been placing bets on who will be next. The two companies mentioned most often in the same breath as Carillion are Kier and Interserve. Both insist they have taken pre-emptive steps to avoid a similar fate. But there were some concerning words in Kier’s explanation for having to go cap in hand to shareholders for £250m. It warned that banks were pulling back from lending to the construction industry – words that will have sent shivers down the spine of anyone who remembers the last financial crisis.

Fracking hell
Cuadrilla became the first company to frack for gas since 2011 this year, drilling near Blackpool, Lancashire. Rivals are set to follow suit, with iGas probably the most likely to get fracking in 2019 and petrochemicals giant Ineos also champing at the bit. If Cuadrilla’s experience is anything to go by though, this could mean minor earthquakes in and around the areas where hydraulic fracturing – to give it its full name – takes place. If tremors become commonplace, 2019 could well be the year in which fracking becomes politically unpalatable in the UK for the foreseeable future.

Ryanair revolution
Ever since Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary agreed to recognise trade unions, he’s been at war with them. The year 2018 involved disruptive strike action by pilots and cabin crew, leading to flight cancellations. Ryanair has made some concessions on pay and conditions but O’Leary isn’t the sort of man to let anyone else have the last word, branding his pilots “a bunch of layabouts” in December. How long can labour relations remain this poor before something has to give? Could 2019 be the year that O’Leary steps down?

High street, low sales
It’s hard to imagine how conditions on the high street could get much worse. Failures in 2018 included Maplin’s, Toys R Us, House of Fraser and Poundworld. Now Debenhams is in a difficult position.

Brexit contingency plans, including stockpiling of goods, are already costing retailers money. Consumers are reining in spending. Weakness in the housing market means homewares may continue to suffer, while fashion sales remain in the doldrums. The government has offered little sign of relief on punishing business rates, while the threat posed to traditional stores by lightly taxed online giants is unlikely to abate.

Reefer madness
Predictions for 2019 have offered precious few reasons to giggle uncontrollably so far but here’s one. The liberalisation of cannabis laws in North America presents huge opportunities for big business. Marlboro cigarette company Altria has agreed to invest $1.9bn in cannabis firm Cronos, while Budweiser owner AB InBev is working with Canadian pot firm Tilray on a $100m research deal into non-alcoholic drinks containing the active ingredients of cannabis, THC and CBD.

However, you look at it, 2018 has been a high point (apologies) for the cannabis industry. Marijuana smokers are legion and the US market is gigantic. Expect interest and investment to surge in 2019.

Legal battles lie ahead for former Barclays’ executives and Lloyds, raising the mouth-watering prospect of finding out which is the tougher opponent for the might of the financial sector, the Serious Fraud Office or television presenter Noel Edmonds.

The SFO is set to begin its case against bankers including former Barclays chief executive John Varley over the bank’s fundraising deals in the Middle East at the height of the credit crunch.

Meanwhile, Edmonds’ £60m suit against Lloyds for alleged fraud at HBOS is set to continue, with the TV star preparing to file his legal claim.