Prognosticating can be risky business, as most columnists know all too well. Still, there is the temptation at the beginning of a new year to predict the outcome of plans and events.
Picking winners and losers on the eve of a new year is an exercise that also has a risky, if not presumptuous, side to it. In Washington-area business circles last year, the big losers suffered only temporary setbacks and some winners may have lost more than they bargained for. Moreover, a long list of unexpected developments that proved troublesome for some chief executives stood out as sobering reminders of Burns' warning about the plans of mice and men.
How could anyone have possibly guessed, for example, that the venerable Woodward & Lothrop Inc. would have been rocked by a bitter takeover fight last year? What indications were there that the normally well-managed American Security Bank would report massive quarterly earnings declines? Who would have predicted that Best Products would come to the end of 1984 in search of yet another reorganization plan that works?
Woodies had been the subject of takeover rumors for years, but no one anticipated a year ago that Washington's biggest department store chain would become the prize in a nasty takeover fight, pitting management against a group of the company's stockholders.
Woodies startled the investment and retail communities last year with an announcement that a New York money manager was behind an attempt to take over the company. Nettled by what it regarded as an unfriendly maneuver by outsiders to seize control, Woodies' management turned to Michigan real estate magnate A. Alfred Taubman, who stepped forward as a "white knight" and bought the department store chain.
There were even fewer clues to American Security's problems when 1984 began. The District's second-largest bank reported last April that profits fell 6.7 percent during the first quarter, and attributed the decline to an increase in problem loans and the rising cost of funds. American Security followed that announcement with a disclosure in July that second-quarter earnings had tumbled 38 percent after a "substantial increase" in problem loans. Third-quarter earnings declined further, plummeting 42 percent. By the time American Security announced in December that it was taking a $37 million charge against earnings to provide for potential loan losses, its reputation had undergone a thorough battering.
Analysts a year ago described Best Products' December 1983 sales as disappointing, but few expected then that the Richmond catalogue retailer would project 1984 earnings of less than half the $37 million profit reported last year. If telltale signs that Best was headed for bad times weren't visible a year ago, an analyst's report last March should have been a tip-off. The acquisition of two other catalogue showroom chains -- Basco Inc. and Modern Merchandising -- "put tremendous pressure on Best's people and systems," the report said. The same report suggested that Best was "back on the path again," however.
Even though a major restructuring of the company is in progress, a Best official admitted just before the end of 1984 that he doesn't expect to see improved results before 1986.
"We think the company's projections are quite realistic," said Wheat First Securities' Kenneth M. Gassman Jr., as Best headed into the 1984 Christmas season.
Best's problems and those encountered at Woodies and American Security indicate that management, in each instance, was just as surprised as industry analysts by developments that dogged those companies much of last year. Surely, if management was unable to detect early warning signs of trouble, outsiders couldn't have had a clue. Or, could they?
While it still seems more prudent to avoid prognostications, there were some telltale signs at the end of 1984 that point to the following taking place in 1985:
* The 1984 chain drug store war will appear only as a blip on its balance sheet, as Giant Food Inc. begins another string of quarterly profit increases.
* The D.C. government will attempt to counter criticism of its economic development program by announcing a major marketing campaign to attract business.
* Proponents of coal slurry pipelines for Maryland and Virginia will suffer further setbacks in the states' legislatures.
* And finally, Maryland will pass a regional reciprocal interstate banking law, after considerable haggling over certain provisions of proposed legislation.