2009: a Year of Tension and Anger

It's fair to say 2009 has been a tense year for the UK business world. Much of has been characterised by momentous events in the dying months of the preceding year.

Following emergency bailouts of banks, the question of whether other industries were also too big to fail was moot. Next in line was the motor manufacturers, such as Jaguar and Landrover.

Another of the hangovers from 2008 was the prosecution of the perpetrators of the ponzi scheme ringlead by Bernard Madoff. Madoff and a few others involved have now been moved to a less lucrative institution.

Elected in late 2008, the 44th president of the US, Barak Obama was sworn in. Obama's inauguration was hailed as a sea-change in US politics - an antidote to the cynical politicking of the previous administration, and many hoped the optimism and dynamism he brought with him would lead the country out of recession early.

However, like every honeymoon period, public adulation for him began to wane through the year.

Back in the UK, regulators and legislators were still reeling from the banking crisis. There was a lot of knee-jerk anger that the banking bosses who rode the country into recession were still being rewarded.

In the end though the business world can't afford to exile people with so much high-level experience for too long and some were welcomed into the fold before the year was half-way through.

Still, the debate about whether the bonus culture should remain unfettered raged on through the year.

Adding insult to injury, it seemed was Goldman Sachs' determination to continue the status quo with bumper bonuses, to massive public disapproval. Home grown institutions, like RBS also tried to act as if they had nothing to justify, even though they were now public property.

Another group of people adding insult were our own legislators. Even when they were considering massive cuts in public spending, they were creaming a little off the top for themselves.

Outside banking and politics, business leaders were taking a hit in pay, just the same as everyone else.
But, that didn't stop the government imposing sanctions on pay rewards in the banking sector by the end of the year, however effective such a policy was going to be in getting to the root cause of the banking meltdown.

Sir David Walker's recommendation on how UK banking should develop will possibly have a more lasting effect on the sector. It went into detail on where bank's boards should recruit and how board-members should behave while in office, some would say too prescriptively. It's likely that Walker's recommendations will have repercussions beyond the banking sector in the next few years.

Other City heavyweights possibly face some scrutiny in 2010, with the Big Four accountants under the scope for their near monopoly of FTSE 100 company audits and possibly some question on why ratings agencies cleared companies that turned out to be lemons.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, the rest of us were trying to keep our businesses going, making whatever sacrifices were asked to keep in steady work.

Plenty of companies, such as BA asked employees to take a cut or a freeze in pay to ease the pressure on company performance.

Managers maintained employee morale how they could - with good reason, sensing the days of bumper pay-rises aren't going to return for some while yet.

For some organisations though, the wait for pay and conditions to improve was too long for their employees. Industrial action broke out in public transport, communications and tourism. It's a trend that we are likely to see more of in the next twelve months and the payback on employee-manager relations could last longer than the industrial action that damaged them.

One other trend that looks like blending into 2010 is the rise and rise of social media. Ryanair and Tesco both came a cropper by misjudging their policy on the medium and, although many managers are adopting the approach of ignoring the internet phenomenon in the hope it might go away, prudent business leaders will be looking how they can use it to their best advantage.

Buzzwords that wormed their way into the lexicon this year include staycation, freemium, and paywall. Expect to become more familiar with them next year.

Finally, as we look forward to the next decade it looks like the mega-merger has come back with a vengeance with plays like BA's (expediant, some would say) embrace of Iberia and Cadbury's rejection of Kraft.

(Pic: sun dazed cc2.0)