Soon we bid adieu to 2011, with its earthquakes, nuclear-plant disasters, economic turmoil, political upheaval and all that. In the dark of winter and the silent calm of the post-Christmas lull, it's hard not to sit back, pour the last of the eggnog and indulge our imagination over what the new year will bring.

The metaphysically minded, particularly those using the Mayan long count calendar, wonder if 2012 will be the year the world ends and the creepy god of war, conflict and the afterlife returns. Or will it just be the year the fourth b'ak'tun ends and a new era begins? That isn't really a big deal at all -- more like going from 1999 to 2000, but without the Y2K bug and the soundtrack from Prince.

For investors and others with a less-cosmic perspective, the more relevant question is this: Will 2012 bring us relief from our fiscal travails, a bump in job creation, peace and prosperity?

Unfortunately -- whether you're waiting for the arrival of ancient gods or simply a new boom in the global economy and world markets -- 2012 doesn't look good.

Two weeks ago, in "Why all signs point to chaos," I talked about how fiscal austerity at home and overseas would continue to fan the flames of protest, revolution and unrest. Higher taxes, fewer benefits and overburdened populations are a recipe for an unraveling of both the eurozone and whatever filaments of cordiality still bind Democrats and Republicans together here. Last week, in "Investing for a year of chaos," I warned that the death of the debt supercycle will keep economic volatility high and pin the performance of the stock market to the undulations of the business cycle.

Image: Anthony Mirhaydari

Anthony Mirhaydari

This is a dark outlook, I know, and we're not fated to this future. But the political discord in Washington renders any proactive policies dead on arrival until after the November election, and Europe's mess isn't any closer to cleanup. So a real turnaround isn't likely before 2013.

In the meantime, the threat of a new recession is real and rising at the same time earnings are coming under pressure. Europe's economy is already likely contracting. Asia's isn't far behind.

This week, I want to take a look at three critical pivot points to watch for as we enter the new year. Think of it as a field manual for what's shaping up to be a very difficult 12 months for investors.

The eurozone crisis

As for Europe's debt crisis, there are signs that last week's much-ballyhooed bank liquidity injection by the European Central Bank will have a smaller impact than those with the rosy glasses want to believe.

For one, the ECB is cutting back on its direct purchase program. On Friday, the ECB completed the euro equivalent of just $25 million in purchases versus $4.5 billion previously, the lowest amount since the bond buying program was restarted. Ostensibly, this was being done to see if the $275 billion (net of other support facilities) it has just doled out in low-cost loans to more than 500 eurozone banks would find its way into the European sovereign debt market and stabilize borrowing costs.

Well, it didn't. The 10-year Italian bond yield pushed back above 7% late last week for the first time since November, marking a big rise in borrowing costs.

In fact, there is evidence that a large number of banks simply put the vast majority of the cheap cash offered by the ECB right back in the ECB's deposit facility. In other words, the banks are busy rebuilding their balance sheets, so they're not interested in lending it to eurozone countries of dubious health. Nor are they interested in lending it to other banks (also dubious) or to consumers or businesses.

Instead, they are paying the ECB to borrow the money, and paying the ECB again for the safety of its deposit facility, all for the benefit of maintaining access to ready cash. This is the behavior you see during a financial crisis, and not the kind of confidence from lenders that's conducive to an economic expansion.

Credit analysts at Standard & Poor's aren't impressed with the whole affair, either. The team there noted that the ECB's cash injection (a three-year, long-term refinancing operation) will not end its downgrade threat for the eurozone banks. The analysts added that 2012 will be a "tough year" with the first quarter a "major test" for Italy as it comes to market with a number of new debt issues.

All of this increases the risk that the markets will continue to pressure the eurozone, in its current form, to break up, something the team at Capital Economics in London expects. It expects Greece to leave in 2012, with at least one other exit from the eurozone in 2013. The risk of a bigger breakup cannot be discounted, either.

Stocks mentioned in this article include Oracle (ORCL, news), Red Hat (RHT, news), General Mills (GIS, news), Best Buy (BBY, news) and Walgreen (WAG, news).