Ahem. Please find your seats.
It is time again for this column's annual “Closing Dinner,” at which we toast and roast the world of finance and corporations — and look back at the year that was.
This year's table assignments were a bit trickier than in years past. Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, asked to sit next to Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase to “catch up on some unfinished business.” Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, asked to sit next to Holder as well but also “within earshot of Steven Cohen.”
Then, out of the blue, Carl Icahn, the activist investor, tweeted that he hoped to sit next to Tim Cook of Apple. Cook, presumably having tired of Icahn's one-track conversations, replied with “ SeatCarlWithBillAckman.” We might sell tickets to that table.
We sent an invitation to Jeff Bezos, but UPS didn't deliver it in time over the holiday. If only Amazon's new drones were up and flying.
Edward Snowden, who could not leave Russia for obvious reasons, sent his regrets along with a note he asked me to give to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook: “Those emails with your mother before the holidays were really cute.”
It's also nice to see Elon Musk, who just arrived, of course, in his Tesla. He has offered to cook dessert, which he promises will be a surprise flambé. (Rimshot, please!)
And Jamie, before I forget, a nice young gentleman from China asked me to pass you his résumé, but I'm not sure who his parents are. Please don't hold it against him. (Ouch! I jest.)
A big thanks to the Winklevoss twins, who were kind enough to pay for tonight's festivities in Bitcoin. Dick Costolo of Twitter also chipped in by paying with his company's stock. As a token of our thanks, there's bubble gum and tulips in all of your gift bags.
Finally, before we begin the official toasts and roasts, we are lucky to have Pope Francis here, especially given his recent critical comments about capitalism and those “wielding economic power.” We sat him next to Donald Trump.
Now, in all seriousness:
Simply, thank you: Ben Bernanke, please take a bow as you prepare to depart the Federal Reserve as chairman. Everyone in the nation owes you a huge thanks. You have done an extraordinary job helping the country get out of a deep recession with little help from gridlocked officials in Washington. We still have a long way to go, but considering the economic abyss we were facing five years ago — and the unconventional steps you have taken over the years to reduce the unemployment rate — it is a minor miracle we are not in worse shape.
Your first steps last month to taper the government's bond-buying program appear to be working. Of course, there's an argument to be made that some of your easy-money policies may have exacerbated inequality in the nation — most of the wealth generated over the last couple of years has accrued to those already with assets like homes or stocks — but it surely kept the economy from collapsing.
And if you ever think your actions weren't appreciated enough, just think of the blunt bumper sticker that former Rep. Barney Frank once joked he was going to buy, effectively saying: Things Would Have Been Worse Without Me. Your successor, Janet Yellen, has some big shoes to fill.
Worst CEO of the year: This year's prize for worst chief executive was a tie between Ron Johnson, who was ousted from J.C. Penney, and Thorsten Heins, who left BlackBerry. Admittedly, both executives had tough turnaround assignments when they got the jobs. But both found novel ways to run their companies into the ground at breakneck speeds.
Johnson, who made his name building Apple's retail business and liked to not-so-subtly compare himself to Steve Jobs, made the early — and patently wrong — decision to jettison Penney's longtime customers in favor of catering to more upscale customers who never showed up.
Heins' reign at BlackBerry was doomed from almost the first week he took the job when he declared, “There's nothing wrong with the company as it exists right now,” even though anyone with an iPhone or Android sensed trouble. And then, rather than introduce the first model of BlackBerry's next-generation phone with a keyboard — the reason so many of its customers were loyal for so long — he introduced a keyboardless version.
Bank CEO of the year: It's not very popular to crown a “CEO of the Year” these days, and even less so the chief of a big bank, but James Gorman, the chief executive of Morgan Stanley, deserves credit for turning around an institution that only a couple of years ago was on the verge of being written off. Gorman, a straight-talking former consultant from Australia, got the bank out of its riskiest businesses, was perhaps the most vocal about tamping down compensation and refocused the firm on the staid, perhaps even boring, business of wealth management.
In the process, he may have taken Morgan Stanley out of competing head-to-head with the likes of Goldman Sachs — an assumption he would challenge and some old-timers would lament — but the firm's turnaround has been a success.
The company's stock has jumped 61 percent this year.
The gang that couldn't shoot straight finally did: One of the refrains we hear again and again from the business community is that Washington is creating unneeded uncertainty with its series of debt default threats and government shutdowns.
It's not clear that praise deserves to be heaped on those who simply do their jobs, but since it seemingly happens so rarely in Washington, praise is in order to both Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray for reaching a mini-budget deal without blowing up the economy again. It wasn't a grand bargain, but it was a step in the right direction.