For a growing body of opinion, 2013 promises to be a breakthrough year which unambiguously sets the world economy, and even many advanced economies, back on the road to recovery.
Disappointingly, Albert Edwards, chief investment strategist for Societe Generale, is not one of the converts. Reports that that this unreconstructed perma-bear has turned a little bullish turn out to be somewhat premature. He's not yet calling the end of the ice age, whatever you may read elsewhere. However, he's very much in the minority: rightly or wrongly, optimism is in the ascendancy.
David Cameron and George Osborne will be praying it lasts. Re-election in two and a half years' time depends vitally on economic deliverance. Given the legacy issues of the credit crunch and the debilitating effects of the eurozone debt crisis, the economy has actually been performing quite well this past two and a half years. But politicians are never going to get credit for preventing worse outcomes. People look around, and they see falling living standards, scarce credit and blighted employment prospects. They've grown tired of hearing how it's all Labour's fault, and they want to see results.
Well maybe this will be the year in which things finally begin to turn. Certainly the signs are already more positive than at any time since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the event that marked the start of the Great Recession. With household names such as HMV and now Blockbuster falling like flies, this assertion might seem at odds with the evidence. Yet these collapses were more to do with specific structural issues than a weak economy, and in any case are quite backward-looking in their implications.
I'm not going to bore you with the wealth of survey and monetary data that points to a rather stronger economy - not just in the US and emerging markets, but even in Britain and Europe. Instead, I am going to focus on a single event which happened this week, the announcement of a possible buy-out of Dell (NasdaqGS: DELL - news) , the ubiquitous but struggling personal computer company.
This might seem a rather odd, not to say irrelevant, transaction to cite as evidence of an improving economy. In the scale of things, it scarcely matters who owns Dell, or even whether it continues to exist at all. And it matters even less to us here in Britain. So let me explain.
If it happens, this will be by far the largest buyout since the start of the crisis, and as such, it is a powerful indicator of improving credit conditions. By rolling his own substantial equity stake into the deal, the founder, Michael Dell, will admittedly make the buyout less of a stretch than it would otherwise be. It is also by no means certain he can pull it off. These deals have a habit of falling apart before they finally reach the altar.
Even so, this is not a transaction which could have been remotely contemplated just a few years ago. The fact that the finance seems to be readily available marks a notable return of animal spirits, which we are already seeing in surging equity prices.
The circumstances that surround the buyout are in many respects unique to Dell itself. The once fast growing PC operation has lost its way, while attempts to diversify into servers, storage, services, and software have so far proved a disappointing substitute. For those who believe the company still has a future, as Michael Dell and his private equity backers plainly do, there is the opportunity to acquire the company at what may be a bargain basement price.
Mr Dell may also be suffering from the same disillusionment with public markets that in the end tends to afflict all outstandingly successful entrepreneurs. The tyranny of quarterly reporting, the oppressive nature of corporate governance rules, and the often conflicting demands and expectations of investors it all gets in the way of running an effective business.
It took Sir Richard Branson little more than a year of having his company publicly traded before deciding it was not for him. Even long-standing FTSE 100 bosses tend to complain bitterly of the constraints of a stock exchange listing. Sir Terry Leahy, former chief executive of Tesco (Other OTC: TSCDY - news) , once told me that today's pressures for short-term performance and dividends would have made the massive investment of Tesco's big drive for market leadership in the 1990s virtually impossible. It was just about tolerated back then, but wouldn't be today.
Besides, private equity continues to enjoy some major tax advantages over the publicly listed company. The tax deductibility of debt helps to make the potential return from private equity much higher. By contrast, the publicly listed company suffers a quadruple tax whammy. At virtually all levels corporate, dividends, capital gains and transaction taxes (stamp duty in Britain) the fully listed company will be at a disadvantage.
In any case, Mr Dell seems to believe that once cocooned from the prying eyes and short-term investment horizons of public markets he can more easily bring about the radical restructuring and change of direction his company needs. I'm sure he's right.
Yet just because the likes of Mr Dell want to, as it were, "unfloat" their companies doesn't necessarily spell the end of publicly quoted markets. These things are cyclical. If the private equity market is picking up, we can be certain that the wider IPO and "mergers and acquisitions" market won't be far behind. Appetite for risk seems to be coming back in leaps and bounds, and in time this will tow the real economy with it.
It may or may not make sense for mature businesses with big cash flows to load themselves up with debt in a public to private buyout, but for fast-growing start-ups and technology companies, equity is the way to go, and for them, paradoxically, the diffuse nature of the investor base offered by a public listing is a positive boon.
Much political wind is expended berating the banks for scarce credit, yet the truth is that banks have always been useless at financing small and medium-sized enterprises. Because of the way they assess risk, banks find it hard to provide loans to highly innovative enterprises, and yet only 3pc of the UK's 4.5m SMEs use equity finance. Astonishingly, most are forced to fall back on credit cards for funding.
As the London Stock Exchange (LSE: LSE.L - news) 's chief executive, Xavier Rolet, has repeatedly asserted, much more needs to be done to encourage the IPO market for smaller companies. A good start would be a British version of the US Jobs Act (standing for Jumpstart Our Business Start-ups).
Whatever. The wider point is that finance is beginning to work again. We see it in the US housing market, which is now unambiguously off the bottom, we see it in the US monetary data, which point to the return of near "normal" rates of US credit expansion, and we see it in a gathering Mergers and Acquisitions market.
The UK is always a good year behind the US, and Europe much further still. It is also more than possible that the mood won't last. Yet for now, the positives are unmistakable.