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Some traders ruefully describe 2011 as “shockingly volatile,” even as others are pricing new Ferraris in sleek showrooms on Park Avenue and in Mayfair. What combination of asset volatility and fast-car returns is in store for 2012?

In the June 2011 issue of Institutional Investor, I described a reference scenario of the events that global macro traders believed to be moving markets last year, based on a two-day conference at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, England. According to this scenario, global macro hedge funds were focused, laserlike, on just four key events: the Federal Reserve Board’s monetary stance, a Chinese hard or soft landing in terms of GDP growth, euro zone stresses and that perennial favorite, oil prices. As I explained in my previous article, “with four big events, there are 16 possible outcomes (two to the fourth power) in the reference scenario ‘decision tree.’”

With the benefit of hindsight, how did these scenario events actually play out, and how skillfully did our traders predict the four outcomes? Are the same cyclical and secular drivers of these events still at work? Looking forward, will these be the four key variables in 2012? And as the accountants tally up hedge funds’ year-end winners and losers, what is the reference scenario for 2012—and with what odds?

The Fed’s Stance: Loose or Looser

The Federal Reserve’s monetary stance is the first big event under traders’ scrutiny, as the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee’s decisions will drive asset markets around the world, for good or for ill.

One branch leading from this decision is moderate economic recovery, reflation of price levels, sustained U.S. government deficits, a slightly tighter Fed stance (and no more quantitative easing), gradual improvement in job creation, gradual repair of household and bank balance sheets, and a sideways movement of the trade deficit. In this branch continued dis-saving by Washington is matched by household savings and the purchase of Treasury debt by foreigners and Ben Bernanke’s Fed, and this is what powers GDP recovery—at least for a while.

The other branch of this part of the decision tree says this party can’t go on for much longer and leads to slower economic recovery, flat employment and selective deflation (or the dreaded “stagflation”), some nominal reduction of the federal deficit, a continued expansive Fed stance and gradual shrinkage of the trade deficit. The former branch might be described as “business as usual,” the latter as “malaise” or “painful adjustment.” At the end of the day, the latter scenario writes off QE2 as a dangerous illusion.