Jeremy Warner: Few winners in a year of losers

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The Independent Online

Outlook It's already that time of year again, I'm afraid – when newspaper folk, in a desperate bid to fill the space between the ads (that's if there are any ads as the economy freezes over), take to endless retrospectives on the year just past. For finance, this has been such a tumultuous year of change these pieces may be more than usually justified.

Who would have predicted a year ago with interest rates still at 5.5 per cent that they would be heading for zero by the end of it and that three of Britain's major high-street banks would have been nationalised with two others acquired by the Spanish? Or indeed that the budget deficit would be spiralling towards 10 per cent and that Gordon Brown would have abandoned all pretence at fiscal prudence? In 12 short months, the world has been turned upside down.

Yet there has been a problem in planning the retrospectives this year. In drawing up our list of winners and losers, it was certainly possible to think of plenty of villains. Just say banker, and you'd have a lorryload. And just as Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland and Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers had resigned themselves to being top of the heap, along comes the pantomime horse of Bernard Madoff to pip them at the post.

Such a spectacular fraudster, like his investment strategy, is almost too good to be true. Never mind the bankers, it takes true genius to swindle the public on such a scale. The way he managed to play to the greed of his clients and the stupidity of his regulators is almost worthy of respect.

But heroes? It's hard to think of any this year from the world of business and finance. Hardly anyone shines through. Yet there are those who have weathered the storm better than others, and, for this year at least, we will have to make do with them. At the front must again be Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco. His UK business looks more resilient than most while his overseas expansion now looks inspired.

Even banking has its stars, most prominent among whom must be Jamie Dimon, chairman of JP Morgan Chase. It was possibly as much luck as design, but somehow or other he managed to escape the sub-prime pitfalls and leverage that have derailed others, and was therefore perfectly placed to snap up Bear Stearns for next to nothing when it became available. His stock price is down "just" 27 per cent on the year, which for a bank must be almost unique.

I would also have put John Varley and Bob Diamond of Barclays in the same category were it not for the fact that in admirably declining to take part in the Government's shot-gun recapitalisation of the banking sector they stuffed their own shareholders by taking the money from the Arabs instead.

That deal nonetheless gave us one of this year's undisputed big-time winners, Amanda Staveley, the Yorkshire lass who acted as power broker on the transaction and earned herself a cool £40m in the process. No retrospective would be complete without her.

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