Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 10 business stories of 2014

The big business news of 2014 will be felt far into the new year. As a radio producer I wrap up 12 months in 2 minutes. Here, the year's a photo gallery. On social media, expect more animals.

The workforce grows, slowly.
  1. Recovery stealth. The U.S. recovered from a punishing winter to outpace the world economy, entering the fourth quarter at a 5 percent growth clip. Unemployment's fallen from 7 percent to 5.8 percent in a year's time, hitting the benchmark Mitt Romney pledged to reach by 2016 as president. Yet the recovery doesn't seem much like a boom. Wages have barely budged, and unemployment remains stubbornly high in service, construction, production and transportation jobs.

  2. Who's smiling now? President Obama calls the health networks Obamacare, "because I do care."
  3. Obamacare health. Entering their second year, signups in the maligned Affordable Care Act exchanges have passed 7 million. The insurance marketplaces give workers a safety net if they lose their jobs or strike out on their own. And they've been good business, with more insurers entering the system and minimal price changes in benchmark plans.

  4. Wealthy Americans think they're middle class, and vice versa.
  5. Losing bracket. The recovery doesn't share and share alike. gap between middle-class and upper-bracket families is the widest since the Federal Reserve began tracking consumer finances. Middle-income households have yet to recover wealth lost in the economy's 2007-09 meltdown. "The financial crisis and the Great Recession demonstrated in a dramatic and unmistakable manner how extraordinarily vulnerable are the large share of American families," says Janet Yellen, the first woman to control the central bank.

  6. Chicago gas prices average $2.693. They're unaccountably higher at the neighborhood pump.
  7. Oil change. The year's most effective economic stimulus: Gas prices have dropped a dollar a gallon in 2014. AAA's national average for regular gas is $2.297. While the world economy dragged, cartel nations kept pumping and U.S. shale production surged. After years of $100-a-barrel oil, crude slipped to $60. They're likely to stay low through much of 2015.

  8. Walgreen caught an aversion to tax inversion. I managed to avoid using the phrase.
  9. Inversion therapy. Mergers and acquisitions leapt 20 percent in 2014. Cheap money, rising stock prices and offshore tax havens pumped $3.4 trillion into dealmaking. Walgreen stopped short of a "a tax inversion" move to Europe in its $16 billion buyout of Boots drugstores. CEO Greg Wasson predicted it'd bring "almost certain intense, protracted IRS scrutiny." But Burger King will relocate in Canada, at least for tax purposes, in a $11 billion merger with Tim Hortons doughnut shops.

  10. Mary Barra rose in General Motors' engineering ranks, only to face a design scandal as CEO.
  11. Hit with a switch. Carmakers this year recalled 1 out of 4 cars on the road. An ignition switch is linked to 42 deaths: The weight of a key fob could cut the engine and the air bags. Five deaths are linked to Hondas with air bags that explode their casings, flinging metal at passengers. Defects are under investigation, parts are on back order and notices continue to go out in the mail.
  12. Capitalist tools Seth Rogen and James Franco of Sony Pictures' "The Interview."
  13. Corporate hackathon. Target's data breach a year ago was just a preview: This year a Home Depot hack exposed data on 56 million credit and debit cards. JPMorgan Chase left 83 million households and businesses exposed. Kmart, Dairy Queen and Albertsons all fell to cyberattacks. Sony Pictures gave up terabytes of data and pulled wide release of "The Interview." (The plot sounds like warmed-over "South Park," though I'm told Seth Rogen kills.) The withdrawal calculus drew a rebuke from Obama: "Sony as a private company was worried about liability and this and that and the other. I wish they'd spoken to me first." But the threat of cybercrime can make corporate heads explode: Target's loss came to $148 million. Before the Sony hack, Gartner estimated global cybersecurity spending this year at $71 billion. Avoiding a repeat next year will take billions more.

  14. A Jeep Grand Cherokee dashboard monitors SUV performance and streams Internet radio.
  15. Yeah, that's a thing. I've been writing about web appliances since Y2K and wireless "smart home" systems even earlier. Finally the "Internet of things" has gone mainstream. New cars are Wi-Fi hotspots and traffic monitors. Apple's iBeacon broadcasts hyperlocal alerts. Fitness bands are striding into hospitals. On the farm, sensors supplant the weather vane and cowbell. Big data's watching you, but only to check what's in your fridge.
  16. Gamers go off the rails to support "Grand Theft Auto V."
  17. Gaming the system. GamerGate saw consumers rise up and fight for conformity. Social critiques of game violence, sexism and misogyny aren't new, but gamers rebelled at seeing them in the friendly confines of game reviews. Threats of a shooting massacre followed, silencing a critic – a scenario that foreshadows the takedown of "The Interview," if not the Christmas Grinch attack on game-play networks. GamerGate didn't attack Sony and the gaming establishment as much as dictate terms: to keep PlayStation safe for first-person shooters. Beware when consumers seize the controls.
  18. Who's smiling now? A word from Warren Buffett corked Coke's "excessive" pay.
  19. Establishment lifehackers. Proxy season saw shareholders rise up and fight for more money. The Dodd-Frank Act required their votes this year on executive pay. Many corporate boards prepared the way by trimming CEO salaries. Now, more payouts are based on earnings. With a booming stock market, everyone's happy – except activist shareholders chasing even bigger returns. Warren Buffett, one of the moneymen behind the Burger King-Tim Hortons merger, prompted Coca-Cola to scale back a $13 billion executive payout simply by telling CNBC it was "excessive." Legendary corporate raider Carl Icahn rattled cages at Apple, Family Dollar and eBay, and a hedge fund forced out the entire Darden Restaurants board with a plan to cut back on Olive Garden breadsticks. Beware when owners seize the controls.

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