The next 12 months could be unsettling, as Washington dangles over the fiscal cliff, Europe struggles to emerge from recession and consumers and businesses sit on their wallets until they feel like the economy has stabilized for good. Here's who might benefit and suffer from those developments in 2013:
The wealthy. One way or another, taxes seem certain to rise on those with the highest incomes, though it still isn't clear what the threshold will be. President Barack Obama wants to raise taxes on households with incomes above $250,000, while Republicans say the cutoff point should be $1 million. A compromise might set the threshold at $500,000 or so.
The unemployed. Congress has been cutting back on federal extensions of unemployment insurance, which typically benefit people who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks. Further cutbacks are likely in 2013, and the federal program might even end altogether.
Most workers. In addition to tax hikes on the wealthy, it seems increasingly likely that a temporary cut of 2 percentage points in the federal payroll withholding will expire for good at the end of this year. The payroll tax hits every paycheck, up to the first $113,700 of earnings. Reverting to the higher rate will lower disposable income for the typical family by about $80 per month.
Savers. The Federal Reserve has made clear it plans to keep interest rates low—practically begging the most conservative investors to wade into the stock market. Those who refuse might even lose money on low-yielding investments if inflation ticks upward.
Anybody dependent on government. It's an abstraction now, but 2013 will probably bring detailed negotiations over big cuts to specific government programs, including Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
Unions. The recent decision in Michigan to roll back union protections seems like a landmark setback for organized labor, since Michigan has been a historic stronghold. More states seem likely to join the 24 that now consider themselves "right-to-work" states.
Home owners. The housing bust is over, and homes are appreciating once again. That's a huge relief for home owners who no longer need to watch their most valuable asset falling in value month after month. A housing recovery has already helped boost consumer confidence, and that should continue when (or if) Congress gets past the fiscal cliff standoff.
Home buyers. It's still a buyer's market, with homes reasonably priced, interest rates close to record lows and banks finally easing up on lending. As prices creep upward, more sellers may decide to list their homes, adding to inventory.
Big companies. Many Wall Street analysts think large-capitalization stocks, such as those that comprise the S&P 500 stock index, will be the most reliable investments in 2013, due to strong balance sheets and the ability to withstand political turbulence in the United States and Europe. Unfortunately, they won't start hiring more until they have no other choice, in order to meet increased demand for their offerings.
Gutsy investors. Dithering in Washington over the fiscal cliff could trigger a stock market sell-off early in 2013. But some investment advisers think that could be a great buying opportunity, since the market could rally later in the year if Washington finally makes some progress on tax and spending policies. A plunge in the stock market might even be the thing that triggers action in Congress.
Social media. The social media craze seems to be here to stay. In fact, the proliferation of mobile devices could give it a second life. It's worth noting that Facebook stock, which got pummeled following the company's public offering in May, has risen 50 percent since early September.
Drivers. With the global economy likely to remain soft, there's no reason to expect the kind of oil spike that happened each of the last two years (assuming there's no war in the Middle East). Gas prices should stay around their current average of about $3.30 per gallon, or drift even lower.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.