¡Ay, caramba! In a year when Wall Street imploded, the Big Three automakers neared collapse, and the economy plunged into its worst downturn in at least a generation, finding business and economy "leaders" who messed up badly isn't too hard. But these 10 might well be the worst of the worst.
1) Bernard Madoff. If the federal government's accusations prove correct, Madoff also belongs on a list of America's most active and energetic senior citizens. The 70-year-old money manager was arrested by the FBI for allegedly running the largest Ponzi scheme this side of Social Security, losing an estimated $50 billion in client money. Investigators say Madoff told them that his business was just "one big lie." Terrible news for numerous wealthy individuals, banks, and charitable foundations. A perfect way to cap off a perfectly terrible year on Wall Street.
2) The bailout trio. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner decided to let Lehman Brothers fail in September, triggering a global collapse of financial confidence, as well as wrecking the money and commercial paper markets. The move also led to massive hedge fund redemptions, which forced them to liquidate stocks. And don't forget the ever evolving $700 billion Paulson plan to bail out the banks. Buying assets one day, injecting capital the next. And the crisis rolls on ....
3) Alan Greenspan. Now when people call Greenspan "the Maestro," it's with more than a hint of sarcasm. Many economists and financial analysts give the former Federal Reserve chairman a large share of the blame for the current financial crisis by keeping interest rates too low for too long during the first part of this decade. They also say the Ayn Rand disciple shirked his responsibility to ensure the safety and soundness of the financial system by resisting calls for tighter regulation of risky bank lending.
4) Angelo Mozilo. The nattily dressed former CEO of Countrywide Financial has become the tanned face of the subprime mortgage meltdown. Mozilo built Countrywide into the nation's largest mortgage lender and enriched himself to the tune of more than $400 million in the process. But as it turns out, lots of those borrowers should have stayed renters. Not that it mattered to Countrywide, since it could sell those soon-to-be-toxic mortgages to Wall Street and beyond.
5) Robert Rubin. It has been a bad run for the heroes of the 1990s boom. Now it's Rubin's turn for criticism, thanks to the unfolding financial disaster that is Citigroup. It looks as if all the company got from Rubin for some $115 million was a strategy for taking on heaps more risk in the collapsing debt markets. The former treasury secretary probably doesn't have to worry about deciding whether to give up his fat private-sector compensation package if eventually nominated by Barack Obama to be the next Fed chair. Doesn't look as if that call will be coming.
6) Richard Fuld. Not only did CEO Fuld watch Lehman Brothers, the 158-year-old investment bank, go down the tubes, but he reportedly got punched in the face in the company gym and was viciously mocked on Saturday Night Live. Under Fuld, Lehman became the single biggest Wall Street underwriter of mortgage debt right into the teeth of the mortgage debt collapse. But in the end, there was no lifeline from Uncle Sam. That was the knockout blow and worse than a punch in the kisser.
7) Barney Frank. This is a quote, from 2003, that the Massachusetts Democrat would like to have back: "These two entities—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—are not facing any kind of financial crisis. The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing. Turns out that the two government-sponsored entities were walking farther and farther out onto thin financial ice. And as late as last year, Frank wanted Fannie and Freddie to take on even more subprime risk. Washington and Wall Street have to share the blame for the financial crisis.
8) John McCain. At times during the presidential campaign, it seemed as if McCain was going out of his way to prove to voters that he really meant it when he said he didn't understand economics too well. He constantly misspoke about the details of his healthcare plan, let Barack Obama steal the tax-cut issue, and talked more passionately about earmarks than about dealing with the imploding housing market.
9) Barack Obama. If there is one piece of policy advice that economists agree on, it is this: You don't raise taxes during an economic downturn. Doing so would be right out of the Great Depression playbook. Yet even as the economy obviously weakened in the latter half of the year, Obama stuck to his campaign pledge to reverse the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts on income and capital gains for wealthier Americans. Indeed, Obama's transition website still holds out that possibility. And while there are signs that he might instead let the tax cuts expire at the end of 2010, that is not for sure yet.
10) Big Three CEOs and unions. It takes a special kind of incompetence to completely drain away the goodwill of a car-crazy nation like America. Yet polls show that most Americans don't want to bail out the automakers. As with the credit crisis, there is plenty of blame to go around, from poorly designed cars to fat union benefits and complicated work rules. Bottom line: Thousands of workers seem destined for the unemployment line.