Why divergence will define the markets in 2015

This year has seen the world's central banks starting to go their own separate ways when it comes to monetary policy -- a process of change that will continue to play out in 2015.

Major central banks that kept monetary policy on hold at the start of the year are now easing it, even as the U.S. Federal Reserve continues to move towards tightening. In emerging markets, countries like Mexico and India have undertaken reforms to boost their economies even as others have lagged behind. Although global growth should accelerate slightly next year, economic forecasts differ wildly between regions and within them. The diverging world that has resulted is likely to divide investment returns in 2015.

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Interest rates
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Amid US economic strength in 2014, the Fed has ended its massive bond-buying program as expected and should inch equally predictably towards raising interest rates next year. Whether or not it is a "considerable time" before the Fed raises interest rates remains a hot topic both in markets and within the Fed. By contrast, sluggish euro zone and Japanese data have pushed the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan towards a new asset purchasing scheme and expanded quantitative easing, respectively.

This divergence between the U.S. and other major regions cannot end overnight. The U.S. recovery appears resilient on a 12-month horizon, the trajectory of Fed policy seems stable, and equally there is no quick fix for the problems facing the euro zone, China, and Japan. In the eurozone, differences in economic competitiveness - between the German and French economies, for instance - make the task even more complex. Given higher interest rates and better economic performance, the U.S. will be a more attractive home for capital. Thus prospects for the U.S. dollar and U.S. assets are still relatively bright as we enter 2015.

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The bullish outlook for the U.S., however, is likely to make it more difficult for emerging markets to attract capital. If the dollar rises against emerging market currencies, companies in developing economies will find it more difficult to service their U.S. dollar debts. Moreover, emerging markets face unpredictable geopolitical tensions, most obviously in the former Soviet Union, and depressed commodity prices, such as in the case of oil.

Just as in the case of the euro zone, however, the intra-regional outlook for emerging markets is more subtle. Net commodity importers like China benefit from low prices. Net commodity exporters like Russia suffer. Countries have also made varying progress with economic reforms to stimulate growth amid tougher competition for capital. Mexico and India have made substantial strides under the administrations of Enrique Peña Nieto and Narendra Modi, respectively. Other nations have made less progress. Such differences are likely to separate the winners from the losers next year.

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The world in 2015 features good and bad divergences. Negatives like geopolitical tensions can incur unquantifiable risks and can make investors more nervous about allocating capital. Areas of strength like the U.S. economy can open up enticing market opportunities. In 2015, we believe the glass will appear half-full, global growth will accelerate slightly, and risky assets will deliver positive single-digit returns. But the magnitude and frequency of market turbulence is likely to increase.

Mark Haefele is global chief investment officer at UBS Wealth Management.

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