LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Any new member of Congress faces a steep climb to get up to speed on the economic challenges facing the U.S. over the next 12 months. Some of the loudest demands for congressional attention will no doubt come from America's CEOs and business leaders because while the recovery has been trudging along in the right direction, some of America's largest companies and corporations have not distinguished themselves over the last year.
Joe Nocera is an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times. He joins me to talk about some of the most notable ups and downs in big business in 2012. Hi, Joe.
JOE NOCERA: How are you, Linda?
WERTHEIMER: I'm fine and I hope you're well. I wonder if we could, you know, begin with the bad news. I mean, why not begin with the bad news? If you had to pick one man or woman who made the worst business decision in 2012, who would nominate?
NOCERA: Well, I think at the top of the list would be Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. Facebook was viewed as a wonderful, wonderful company that everybody wanted to own until the moment came when you actually could own it, which was May of this year. It was one of the most highly sought-after public offerings ever, and it was one of the most disastrous. Botched by the NASDAQ, the stock went straight down.
But what also happened was investors started to take a closer look to the one question that Facebook has the most trouble answering. How will you ultimately make money? And those question marks really caused that stock to fall hard.
WERTHEIMER: It wasn't a great year for Apple either, was it?
NOCERA: Well, it started out like gangbusters. You'll recall that Steve Jobs, the avatar of Apple died in 2011, so the new team was in place, Tim Cook was the new chief executive. And for the first half to two-thirds of the year, they seemed like they could do nothing wrong.
And then they came out with the new iPhone, and they kicked off Google maps, which everybody had loved and relied on and put in their own mapping program. And that's just kind of the way Apple is. Eventually they want to control everything. No big surprise there except that Apple Maps was a horror show, and people were very upset.
And it led to questions about whether, now that Steve Jobs and his perfectionist tendencies were not there anymore, whether Apple was still going be the same kind of company. And lo and behold, you saw some of the same things that happened with Facebook. A $700 stock at its peak is today more like a $500 stock. It's a very new experience for Apple watchers.
WERTHEIMER: Now, I know that you follow the high-frequency trading story, that's computerized trading programs, which buy and then sell positions in seconds or fractions of seconds. HFT has sometimes moved faster and in more complicated ways than even trained analysts can follow, right?
NOCERA: Well, yes. This was a big year for high-frequency trading, and I don't mean that in particularly a good way. There are two basic trends. The first is that we keep having these market glitches because the computer algorithms that tell these programs when to buy and sell sometimes go haywire. And we saw this most recently with Knight Capital a few months ago where the first 45 minutes they just went bazonkers. I guess that's a technical term.
NOCERA: Ultimately, Knight Capital had to sell itself to another company to survive. But there's another more important underlying question than whether the algorithms go haywire sometimes. And that is: do high-frequency traders have advantages over average investors that they shouldn't have? The SEC had spent much of this year worrying about these momentary glitches.
But towards the end of the year, it started to ask tougher questions about this more important question of whether high-frequency trading is unfair to the rest of us.
WERTHEIMER: So, we don't have too much time left for good news. Do you have any good news?
NOCERA: I do. I do. AIG has paid back every penny that the government spent to bail it out and they gave the government a $12 billion profit. And they did it in a very simple way. They shed assets that were not core, and they ran their insurance businesses well, and it's really, really worked out.
WERTHEIMER: Joe Nocera, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, it's always a pleasure to talk to you.
NOCERA: Thank you, Linda.
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