Nate Silver makes it all look so easy. The New York Times statistician, who predicted Barack Obama’s presidential win, says his methods for forecasting the outcome of elections or sporting events are “not that complicated”. But not everyone gets it quite as right as he does.
Undaunted, the Financial Times’ experts are putting their reputations on the line by making their own predictions. They have no handy algorithms to weigh the probabilities.
Will we discover convincing evidence of life on Mars?
Chemical analysis of Martian soil and rock by Nasa’s Curiosity rover will provide the most eagerly-awaited scientific results of 2013. The car-sized rover, which landed in August, has begun to put its robotic instruments through their paces — and rumours that they had already detected a chemical signal of life caused a frenzy of excitement a month ago. Over the coming year, Curiosity will roll for many miles over the dusty red landscape, stopping to dig or drill samples for its robotic laboratory to cook, sniff and taste. It will be looking for an unambiguous chemical signature of molecules that could only have come from biological processes — either in the past or, more excitingly, today. Although astrobiologists will be astonished if Curiosity actually finds a live Martian bug, most will say that the planet’s geological history makes it probable that it has hosted life in the past — and possible that microbes still live there today. I predict that by the end of 2013, we will have firm biochemical evidence for biology on Mars. — Clive Cookson
Will Barack Obama bomb Iran?
No. To borrow the Churchillian metaphor, the US president intends to try jaw-jaw ahead of war-war. Obama will seek direct bilateral negotiations with Iran. There is no guarantee that Ayatollah Khamenei will agree, but tougher sanctions have provided a powerful incentive. Iran is now feeling serious economic pain as a result of financial and oil sanctions and the regime fears another “Green” revolution. For its part, the US now seems ready for talks that go well beyond Iran’s nuclear ambitions to issues such as a US security guarantee. Benjamin Netanyahu will try to pull Obama in the other direction by urging an early US attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. However, after the Israeli prime minister’s support for Mitt Romney in the presidential race and his plan for more Israeli colonies in the West Bank, the White House is in no mood to listen. 2013 could be the year of the big bust-up between the US and Israel. — Philip Stephens
Will Monti still be in government after elections early next year?
Many hope so, but mostly outside Italy, where markets and beleaguered Eurozone leaders nervously await the outcome of elections. These will probably be held in February, with Silvio Berlusconi back to his populist antics in a desperate bid to defeat the centre-left Democrats allied with ex-communists. Mario Monti, the technocratic Prime Minister, will give up his neutrality and enter the electoral race to defend his legacy. The campaign promises to be ugly. Italian politics has not been so volatile since the collapse of the post-war order in the early 1990s. Monti’s centrists face a disgruntled electorate tired of recession and tax rises and angry at a corrupt political elite. Not popular enough to win outright, Monti may face the choice of becoming head of state (important but removed from policy making) or finance minister in coalition with the Democrats. I go for the latter. — Guy Dinmore
Will the US return to pre-crisis GDP trend growth of 3 per cent in 2013?
No — growth will not exceed 2 per cent. Continued Washington wrangling over America’s fiscal future, weak demand for US exports and a relatively slow recovery in the US housing market will make for another disappointing year of recovery — the fourth in a row. Relative to Europe, the US will continue to be a bright spot. Relative to its own expectations, the US will underperform. — Edward Luce
What will change after Germany’s elections in September?
For the first time, there is the chance of a “black-green” coalition emerging in Berlin. This will be an alliance between the centre-right Christian Democratic Union of Angela Merkel and the environmentalist Greens, whose roots go back to the protest movement of the 1960s. Any such deal will be tough for either side to negotiate because of years of mistrust. In the context of Social Democrats’ opposition to a grand coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democracts, a black-green combination is the likeliest outcome. The result will be a pro-European coalition, but one of the most conservative that Germany has had for decades. — Quentin Peel
Will the Greek economy stop shrinking in 2013?
Yes. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast that Greece will return to growth in 2011, then 2012, 2013 and now 2015. There are three reasons why this year may be different. First, the latest austerity package brings Greece tantalisingly close to primary balance and multiple restructurings have largely put Athens’ debt service on hold for several years. Second, remember that banks were not the culprits in Greece. But no banking system can survive a depression and sovereign restructuring without help. That help has been held back in the long stand-off between Athens and the “troika”, so a private credit crunch has added insult to injury. Funds to recapitalise the banking system are finally on their way. Third, parts of the Greek private sector are in better shape than the public sector. Much competitiveness has been regained. Once structural reforms are implemented, they should unleash other potential that has been held back by outrageous inefficiencies. — Martin Sandbu
Will Yulia Tymoshenko be set free and Ukraine turn to the West?
No, on both counts. The administration of President Viktor Yanukovich has dug itself in too deep by insisting Tymoshenko’s conviction was justified and non-political. Backing down now will involve too great a loss of face. The EU, meanwhile, has repeatedly signalled it will not sign political “association” and free-trade deals with Kiev as long as the opposition leader remains in jail. So those agreements, though their texts are fully agreed, will remain unsigned. However, Ukraine will not move towards Russia either. Yanukovich and the Russian leadership do not get on. Joining Russia’s emerging “Eurasian Union” with Belarus and Kazakhstan involves too much loss of sovereignty. Ukraine will attempt to ease a fiscal squeeze by agreeing a new facility with the IMF. But otherwise it will remain where it has been for the past two decades — in limbo between east and west. Neil Buckley
Will there be western military intervention in Syria?
Yes. There are several reasons why western powers are likely to intervene in Syria. First, after about 40,000 deaths, there is growing discomfort at the humanitarian toll. Second, there is growing anxiety that the regime of Bashar Al Assad will be succeeded by fundamentalist Islamists, including groups linked to Al Qaida. The West will seek to avoid this by initially intervening to provide weapons to select moderate rebel groups. Further intervention by western military can then depend on subsequent events. The US has already made clear that it will get involved if Al Assad is preparing to use chemical weapons. A severe escalation in fighting might well lead to the imposition of a no-fly zone, using western air power. If Al Assad falls, the aftermath can be chaotic and bloody. There will be a huge pressure to send a stabilisation force into Syria. One way or another, 2013 is likely to see the end of the western taboo on military intervention in the country. — Gideon Rachman
Will shots be fired between Japan and China in 2013?
No, but do expect trouble. Resentment over competing claims to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, referred to as Diaoyu by Beijing, is extremely deep. There have already been skirmishes at sea and violent anti-Japanese riots flashed across China this past year. The situation will not have been calmed by the election of Shinzo Abe as Japan’s Prime Minister. Abe is a nationalist who wants to ditch Japan’s pacifist constitution and beef up defence spending. China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, will probably also be keen to burnish his nationalist credentials. Still, to allow shots will be risky. The US is committed to helping Japan if its islands come under attack. Spilled blood can quickly escalate into an international crisis, but both sides will do their utmost to ensure things do not get completely out of hand. — David Pilling
What will be the biggest medical breakthrough this year?
There will be good news for the 200 million people with Hepatitis C, the blood-transmitted virus that can lead to liver infection, cirrhosis and cancer. Drug companies are competing in a race towards purely oral pill-based treatments that have shown elimination of the virus in clinical trials. These offer a big improvement over treatment based on injected interferon. That still leaves the need for far greater prevention efforts to cut the rate of infections — many of which come from intravenous drug use — as well as improved diagnosis, since the virus can longer be present without obvious symptoms. — Andrew Jack.
— Financial Times