The things they said in 2009...
This year, some of the world's leading bankers, business people, regulators and politicians left us with a collection of memorably idiosyncratic reactions to the financial challenges of the age. Sean O'Grady listens again to those who borrowed our ears, and dishes the new year honours and brickbats for the use and abuse of language
Friday 01 January 2010
Quote of the year
In an unusually crowded and entertaining field the most strikingly apt description of a financial institution comes not from Euromoney or The Economist, but from Rolling Stone magazine, where Matt Taibbi, best known for his coverage of the 2004 US presidential election, penned this memorable paragraph, surely the quote of the year:
"The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who's Who of Goldman Sachs graduates."
As if to prove the point, Goldman Sachs chief, Lloyd Blankfein (pictured), soon after remarked: "We're doing God's work," apparently in jest. Not everyone got the joke. Better luck next year, Lloyd.
"In order to take myself out of the limelight and focus on my health, and to allow everyone at Apple to focus on delivering extraordinary products, I have decided to take a medical leave of absence until the end of June." Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, returned to work in September. Thanks to the iPod nano and the iPhone, whose latest model came out in June, Apple enjoyed 2009 more than most.
Tough talk of the year
Not for the first time, Rupert Murdoch has gone looking for a fight, this time with Google: "We intend to charge for all our websites... quality journalism is not cheap." His lieutenants were ruder. Robert Thomson, the editor of The Wall Street Journal and former editor of The Times, called search engines "parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet". So there.
The Ratner Sherry Decanter prize
Business leaders are even less willing than politicians to admit to weakness, which is why Gerald Ratner's description of some of his company's products as "total crap" back in 1991 remains a case study in how careless talk can cost jobs. So it was even more shocking to find the boss of one of the most conservative companies in the world "doing a Ratner" in October. Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota and grandson of its founder, told Japanese journalists that the world's largest car maker was "grasping for salvation", adding: "But I'm not the saviour." Worse still, blogging under pseudonym Morizo, he said he admired the Volkswagen Scirocco: that is not the "Toyota Way" of doing things.
Mr Toyoda has apparently been influenced by How the Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins, an American management guru. The last stage of corporate development, according to Mr Collins, is "capitulation to irrelevance or death". Toyota stockholders have been warned.
Todd Stitzer, the chief executive of Cadbury, dismissed the Kraft bid thus: "It is the concept of taking what is a fast-moving sports car and sticking it into a four-door sedan in the slow lane of traffic." We never knew a Creme Egg could go that fast.
Understatement of the year
"An error of judgment." Bernard Madoff's explanation for how he came to be running a $65bn Ponzi scheme sounded like a plea in mitigation for double parking. The judge took a rather sterner view, describing his crime as one of "extraordinary evil".
You said it
"If anybody says it is nice to be hated, they're lying." So said Bob Crow of the RMT, Britain's most successful trade union leader, and he should know. It'll be interesting to see how he squares up to Tory leader David Cameron, should he win the election, who this year told us: "My father was a stockbroker, my grandfather was a stockbroker, my great-grandfather was a stockbroker." Mr Crow's dad was a docker.
Churchill Award for Rhetoric
The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, is sometimes guilty of lapsing into jargon. Not when he pointedly spoke in October to an audience of Edinburgh bankers, though. It was Mervyn's finest hour: "To paraphrase a great wartime leader, never in the field of financial endeavour has so much money been owed by so few to so many. And, one might add, so far with little real reform."
Though not quite so resonant, Lord Turner, chair of the FSA, was blunter than Mr King about a City that has grown "beyond a socially reasonable size... I think some of it is socially useless activity."
What are you talking about?
Oracle's chairman, Larry Ellison, got his head in the clouds in 2009: "If there's no hardware or software in the cloud we are so screwed. But it's not water vapour, all it is is a computer attached to a network. What are you talking about? I mean, what do you think Google runs on? Do you think they run on water vapour? I mean, cloud? It's databases and it's operating systems and its memory and microprocessors and the internet. But all of a sudden, no it's none of that, it's the cloud! What are you talking about?"
Scarcely more comprehensible was Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum of Dubai, as Dubai World fell victim to its $80bn debt pile: "They do not understand anything. It is the fruit-bearing tree that becomes the target of stone throwers."
Cries for help
"More than anything, let's give this company some friggin' breathing room. It's been too crazy, everybody on the outside deciding what Yahoo should do, shouldn't do, what's best for them. That's gonna stop." That was Yahoo's chief executive, Carol Bartz, telling a press conference how her company was going to turn itself around. No less desperate was Willie Walsh's appeal to his staff, before their aborted strike: "We face a fight for survival... Our survival depends on everyone contributing to changes that permanently remove costs from every part of the business."
It's that man again
David Buik, a partner at BGC, became the public face of the City with his ubiquitous media appearances. Ever quotable, he called a windfall tax on the banks an "insane act". Alistair Darling went ahead anyway.
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