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No Crystal Ball? Here's Help With 2016 Economic Forecasts

Pump jacks at the Belridge oil field in California's Kern County. Oil prices are expected to remain low in 2016 and economic growth is projected to pick up slightly, forecasters say.

Every investor celebrating Christmas this week would love this gift: a really good crystal ball.

It'd be so helpful to look right through the orbuculum and glimpse the future prices of stocks, bonds and gold bars.

Unfortunately, no such ball exists. Our next best option is to turn to economic forecasters. And in general, the professionals see mostly good news for 2016.

The mainstream view is that the new year's gross domestic product — the broadest measure of the economy — will grow in the 2.5 to 3 percent range. In the first 6 1/2 years of this recovery, the average growth rate has been in the 2 to 2.5 percent range.

In other words, most economists believe the coming year may bring a slightly better pace of expansion than what we are seeing now.

Here are some 2016 predictions that reflect commonly held opinions among top forecasters:

  • Corporate profits perking up. "Earnings growth is expected to accelerate. Resumption of earnings growth is key to stock market performance in 2016 ... [which means] another year of potentially positive returns." — LPL Financial
  • Oil prices staying low. They likely will remain depressed, and may even fall below $35 a barrel. "I don't think we've seen the bottom of energy." — Laurence Fink, BlackRock chairman, speaking on Bloomberg TV
  • Interest rates rising. The Federal Reserve has finally begun hiking short-term interest rates and now is "likely to proceed very slowly. IHS Global Insight expects four [quarter-percentage-point] increases in 2016 (in March, June, September and December) and four more in 2017." — IHS Global Insight
  • Residential construction improving. "Homebuilding, especially single-family homebuilding, will remain a key driver of economic growth in 2016. There is a great deal of pent-up demand for housing." — PNC senior economist Gus Faucher
  • Unemployment falling. The 5 percent jobless rate could go even lower, "perhaps down to the mid-4's." — Julie Heath, director of the University of Cincinnati's Economic Center
  • Auto sales setting records. Auto sales are projected to hit 17.3 million by the end of 2015, just shy of the 2000 record of 17.4 million. "That threshold certainly will be surpassed in 2016 as sales stretch to an almost-mythical 18 million vehicles." — Robert Weagley, chair of the personal financial planning department at the University of Missouri
  • Manufacturing strengthening. "The manufacturing economy is stabilizing after a difficult 18-month period (mid-2014 to late 2015) and may accelerate further." — John Canally, economic strategist for LPL Financial
  • Wages inching up. "The U.S. is poised for real wage growth of 2.7%, barring rising inflation." — Korn Ferry Hay Group

While most predictions are on the positive side for companies, workers and consumers, economists also see potential trouble spots. Those include a too-strong-dollar that could further depress U.S. export sales; continued sluggishness in China; plunging commodity prices that could lead to many more layoffs; and terrorist events.

And speaking of forecasts, how did the professionals do when predicting 2015?

Pretty good, really.

Here's a line from a Wall Street Journal story that ran in mid-December last year:

"The U.S. economy is poised for stronger growth in 2015 due to falling gas prices, a tighter job market and expectations of larger wage gains, according to the latest Wall Street Journal survey of economists."

Those forecasters may not have had a crystal ball, but at least for 2015, their darts mostly landed on the right numbers.

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