The best and worst of business in 2008

From rogue investor Bernard Madoff to rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel (pictured), it was a year of superlatives — the biggest bailouts, the largest swindles. FRANCE 24's Douglas Herbert reviews the best, worst and simply unsurpassable of 2008.


And the Herbert Award goes to…

It was the year the “R” word — recession — went from taboo topic to a staple of water-cooler chat. It was a year of ballooning bailouts, of central bankers on rate-slashing binges, of in-your-face fraudsters and crisis-summit oneupmanship (G8, EU15, G20…). Fans of John Maynard Keynes were in full gloating mode, pronouncing laissez-faire capitalism dead — or at least, gravely ill.

But 2008 was best defined as a year of defining moments: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Herewith, I offer my prize-winning picks gleaned from the scrum of financial newsmakers over the past 12 months.

The Best Deal of the Year

US investment house JP Morgan Chase snatches up Bear Stearns in a shotgun deal that values its moribund rival at just 10 dollars per share. That’s about the price of a cab ride in Paris.

Worst Deal of the Year

Anyone who stashed their cash with Glitnir, Kaupthing or Landsbanki. Iceland’s three largest banks followed one another in lemming-like succession over the bankruptcy cliff. After years of living dangerously, but prosperously, on borrowed wealth, the tiny Nordic nation succumbed to credit-crisis-induced cardiac arrest. Reykjavik bankers are now falling back on an old standby — fishing.

It Wasn’t Meant to Be

Call it a case of the wrong job, at the wrong time. This award goes to the unfortunate French trader who started work at Lehman Brothers’ London offices on the very day the US investment bank went belly-up. He was fired before he reached his desk.

Business editor Douglas Herbert’s best and worst of 2008

Employee of the Year

He never took a holiday — and his bosses at French bank Société Générale contend they now know why. France’s so-called rogue trader, Jérôme Kerviel, lost 5 billion euros in one of the world’s biggest frauds. Kerviel maintains his superiors were anything but oblivious. He says they knew what he was up to, but chose to turn a blind eye as long as he was making money.

Bear Market Award

This one’s a technical tie between Russia’s stock market, which plummeted 72% in 2008 — making it the worst performer among the world’s 20 biggest indexes — and the country’s billionaire oligarchs. The latter, in better days back in the mid-’90s, bankrolled the Kremlin. In 2008, as their credit seized up, the tables were turned as the oligarchs found themselves going cap-in-hand to Vladimir Putin for billion-dollar bailouts. One oligarch reportedly lost a million dollars a minute at the height of the crisis.

A Figure to Die for Award

8%. That’s how much economists say China is still expected to grow in 2008 — despite the global recession. Not the double-digit growth spurt of years past… but still. Maybe China can still save the global economy, after all?

The Hot Potato Award

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, under pressure to fix his own economy at home, points the finger of blame for the failures of global capitalism squarely at the United States. “Insofar as this crisis began in New York, then the global solution must be found in New York,” Sarkozy declares, appealing for an emergency summit of world leaders in the hometown of Wall Street. George W. Bush balks. The G20 summit ends up being held in Washington, D.C.

Best Freudian Slip

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown flubs his lines in parliament, drawing derisive chuckles from the opposition, when he boasts to MPs, “We saved the world.” He meant to say, “We saved the banks.”

How to Make Friends and Influence People

The bosses of the Big Three US carmakers used their private jets to fly to Washington on a last-ditch mission to beg Congress for billions in rescue cash for their failing industry.

Gaffe of the Year

Bush’s repeated efforts to reassure Americans about the strength of the US economy. Every time he opened his mouth, the markets seemed to fall further.

Quote of the Year

“The fundamentals of our economy are strong,” trumpeted John McCain on September 15. Pundits said afterwards that any bounce he may have gotten from the Republican convention effectively ended with those words.

Name of the Year

The architect of the world’s most audacious pyramid scheme, Bernard Madoff. He literally made off with billions.

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