31 December 2009

Top Financial Stories 2009

I generally ask myself at this time of year what were the biggest stories of the past twelve months, in business/financial news.

By "stories," I don't mean themes, such as "Doubts about efficacy of SEC regulation" or "US/EU relations." I mean stories, such as one might have seen in a particular newspaper on some specific day. Of course, I choose the ones I do largely because they illustrate an important theme. But the theme itself isn't the story.

Further, I don't rank them, as in a top ten list. For the first couple of years that I did this I simply gave one "top" story from each of the twelve months of the year now ending. Last year was so wild, especially in its second half that I couldn't stick to the one-a-month presentation. I ended up with a list of 18 big stories, two per month starting with July.

This year, for the sake of balance I suppose, I have produced another list of 18 stories, twice a month this time for the first six months, then just one a month from July.

All that understood: Here we go! The list is dominated this year by a meta-theme. We might call it: the triumph of experience over hope.

January. (a) The inauguration of a new President of the United States, and Barack Obama's choice of Timothy Geithner to head Treasury. Geithner's presence in the new administration is not a sign of change, but one of continuity. During most of the Bush years, Geithner was the very visible President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

(b) Financial crisis in Iceland brings street protests, shake-up in government there. Iceland, on the one hand, has long been a free market economy, with taxes lower than those of most other OECD countries. On the other hand, it has maintained a Nordic welfare system, including universal health care and post-secondary education. Whatever may be true of Las Vegas: what happens in Iceland, is widely watched elsewhere.

February. (a) Obama signs the stimulus act, a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The full title seems better to convey the almost cartoonish Keynesianism involved: "An act making supplemental appropriations for job preservation and creation, infrastructure investment, energy efficiency and science, assistance to the unemployed, and State and local fiscal stabilization, for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, and for other purposes."

(b) Zimbabwe asks African states for $2 billion in aid -- Mugabe vows to continue brilliant policies. I'll simply offer a link here.

March. (a) Bernie Madoff pleads guilty without a plea deal, claims to have acted alone. Of course, he did not act alone, but by taking the fall and keeping mum on confederates, he appears to have earned some necessary prison cred.

(b) UK Financial Services Authority adopts new rules on derivatives. In London as in Washington, complicated and insufficiently regulated derivatives are widely blamed for the crisis of 2008. That diagnosis is jejune, but is to be expected. The particular derivatives that draw fire in the UK are known as "contracts for difference."

April. (a) Dow Chemical finally closes on its Rohm & Haas deal. The idea of this merger was to craete a "leading specialty chemicals and advanced materials company." Its logic would have been more powerful, and the deal would have gone through smoothly, had the timing been a bit better.

(b) Chrysler files for bankruptcy This is the first of three headline events on our list of 18 that may stand in for a single momentous theme -- the frog-marched restructuring of the US automotive industry in general. And we won't bother listing separately that GM too passed through a bankruptcy court proceeding.

May. (a) China-Brazil oil/loan deal The Brazilian oil company Petrobras finalized a deal with the People's Republic of China. Petrobras got a (US)$10 billion loan and PRC got a long-term supply of 'black gold.' This is a straw in a lot of different winds -- the rise of China to global prominence on the back of its huge dollar reserves is one of them.

(b) Obama announces new CAFE/ emissions standards. This is our second auto industry headline of the year. The program is projected to reduce oil consumption over the period from the 2012 to the 2016 model years by approximately 1.8 billion barrels. (As you probably would expect, dear reader, I think such projections warrant skepticism.)

June. (a)US Supreme Court decides Traveler's Indemnity v. Bailey. Asbestos is one of the big "mass tort" issues that have rocked our civil legal system in recent decades. Travelers thought it had a deal that limited its exposure via a settlement trust established by order of the federal district court in Manhattan back in 1986. Unfortunately for them, state law claims and "collateral attacks" made that trickier than they had expected.

(b) Elections to Euro parliament strengthen the center-right parties. For purposes of the italicized statement, anyway, we may understand the term "right" to mean the group of parties or factions that are suspicious about the role of the Parliament they are joining, either on behalf of separate sovereign nationalisms or on behalf of EU-regulated global commercial concerns or both. The "left," which lost this round, consists of those that see a need for a more activist EU.

From here on we are presenting just one headline per month.

July. Cash-for-clunkers program in the US. This is our final US-auto-industry headline. There was always an ambiguity to the plan. Was it designed chiefly to stimulate the auto industry, or to improve fuel efficiency? The goals aren't obviously in harmony. Still, any critique of its efficacy in one respect could be deflected by pointing to the other.

August. Settlement of US/Swiss Dispute over UBS Confidential Client Information. The relationship between Switzerland and the US seems to have grown closer in a number of respects over the last year.

September. Target Corp. declassifies its board Reform has come to the field of corporate governance, though what over-all impact such reforms may end up having it is hard to say.

October. Ireland votes in favor of Lisbon Treaty, effectively secures the new continent-wide government It is difficult to tell where Europe is headed. The Lisbon Treaty would certainly seem to be a step toward closer political integration. But the European Parliamentary elections, as noted above, were won by parties skeptical thereof, and there are a lot of centrifugal forces at work.

November. What is patentable? SCOTUS hears arguments. My own expectation is as follows: (a) the Justices will uphold the court below in its finding that Bilski's 'process' is really an abstract idea and thus not patentable; and (b) they will work harder than the court did below in order to define what is or isn't an abstract idea.

December. Two crucial bills advance through the Houses of the US Congress -- the health care reforms and the financial-regulatory system overhaul.
It seems very likely that something will be enacted into law in both of these areas sometime early next year. But I could be wrong even about that.

No comments:

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.