The 5 biggest business stories of 2014
A roller-coaster year for stocks
If 2013 was a banner year for stocks, 2014 was a roller coaster. Strong corporate earnings and a relatively stable global economy helped push the Dow Jones industrial average above a record 17,900, while the S&P 500 surpassed 2,000 for the first time ever. But the second half of the year was particularly volatile: Nearly all of the market's gains for the year were erased in October, driven by fears over Ebola, tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and uncertainty over the Federal Reserve's actions on interest rates. Stocks came back strongly in the final weeks of the year but continued to seesaw. That has strengthened concerns that markets are headed for an overdue correction in 2015. In particular, bearish investors remain wary about the risk of a tech bubble, citing billion-dollar valuations of profitless Silicon Valley firms, a flurry of deal activity in the technology and biotech industries, and sky-high Nasdaq prices that haven't been seen since the first dot-com boom.
Tax inversions take off
Complex deals known as tax inversions became one of the hottest trends in corporate finance this year — and one of the most controversial. More than a dozen major companies attempted to buy smaller foreign rivals and relocate overseas to lower their U.S. tax bills, more than had attempted the accounting maneuver in the previous three years combined. Inversions were particularly popular in the pharmaceutical industry, but companies like Burger King, which is set to buy Canadian coffee-and-doughnuts chain Tim Hortons and relocate north of the border, and the Chiquita banana conglomerate also joined the wave. The practice drew withering criticism from U.S. lawmakers and federal officials, who say inversions rob the U.S. government of corporate tax revenue; in July, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew called the deals "unpatriotic." To slow the corporate exodus, the Treasury Department announced new rules in September that make it tougher and less attractive for companies to complete inversions, effectively scuttling several major deals, including Chicago-based pharmaceuticals giant AbbVie's $54 billion purchase of British drugmaker Shire.
The Fed ends its bond buying
After six years and more than $4 trillion, the Federal Reserve announced an end to its massive bond-buying program known as quantitative easing in October, a sign that the central bank believes the U.S. economy is improving. Originally conceived as a $600 billion emergency measure to prop up the housing market after the 2008 financial crash, the program was renewed in 2010 and again in 2012 to stimulate a still-struggling U.S. economy; at one point, the central bank was pumping $85 billion into markets each month. The U.S. economy is far stronger today than in the darkest days of the recession — the stock market has soared to new heights and job creation has quickened — but even supporters of the Fed's spending spree say that its precise effects are hard to assess. Some critics say the program has exacerbated economic inequality, by helping to dramatically lift financial markets while the rest of the economy plods along. Now that the Fed has officially wound down its purchases, all eyes have shifted to interest rates, which the Fed has signaled it could start raising from their current near-zero levels sometime next year.
Hiring picks up, but wages stagnate
The economic recovery steamed ahead this year, as the U.S. economy continued a 50-month streak of job creation, the longest since World War II. The unemployment rate fell throughout the year; it currently stands at 5.8 percent, down from 7 percent a year earlier and 7.8 percent in December 2012. After the economy unexpectedly contracted early in the year owing to a particularly severe winter, growth came back strongly in the summer and fall, driven by increases in consumer spending and business investment. The period from April to September was the strongest six-month performance for the economy in more than a decade. But many Americans still don't feel as if they are reaping the rewards. Job gains haven't translated into higher wages; 65 percent of the private-sector jobs created in the last five years pay hourly wages of $20 or less. And since bosses in many industries aren't struggling to find workers to fill available jobs, they don't yet feel the need to offer raises.
General Motors' record recall
General Motors began the year by making car industry history, naming Mary Barra, a 34-year GM veteran, as the first female CEO of a global car manufacturer. The celebrating didn't last long. Just weeks into Barra's tenure, GM announced the first of a series of vehicle recalls related to faulty ignition switches in its Chevy Cobalt cars and other models. Ultimately, the automaker recalled more than 30 million vehicles worldwide for various defects, a record for a U.S. car manufacturer in a single calendar year. More than 40 deaths have now been linked to the faulty ignition switches, and hundreds of accidents are being investigated. Barra and other GM executives were hauled before a series of congressional panels and grilled over why GM hadn't acted sooner to fix the defect, and a federal criminal probe is ongoing. The scandal could ultimately cost GM hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and damages — on top of its tarnished reputation.