In late 2008, Americans were getting crushed by an avalanche of bad business news.
Financial systems were melting down, jobs disappearing, homeowners defaulting and auto companies heading for a cliff. With so many contenders, picking that year's five biggest stories was tough.
In contrast, 2015 looks almost placid. Unemployment steadily drifted down, wages tiptoed up, the real estate scene brightened and inflation stayed low. So nominees for the biggest stories of 2015 seem tame compared with the terrifying Great Recession years.
Still, these five stories did have very big impacts:
- Commodities Price Plunge. All over the world, producers saw prices drop dramatically for raw materials sold in bulk, such as oil, coal, copper and iron ore. The price swoons led to massive layoffs in oil fields, mines and mills. The change also helped keep producer prices down, and that all helped tame consumer inflation worldwide.
- Global Economic Weakness. For years, China's insatiable appetite for raw materials — for building infrastructure and supplying factories — put money into producers' pockets, boosting growth in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. So when China's growth declined sharply this year, the whole world slowed down. In late summer, investors panicked and pushed down stock prices as economists tried to sort out what was happening in China. Stocks have largely recovered now, but worries about China's growth continue to tamp down global optimism.
- Auto Industry Scandals. The Environmental Protection Agency revealed in September that Volkswagen, the world's top-selling automaker, had been cheating on emissions tests. Hundreds of thousands of cars marketed as being "green" were actually spewing diesel pollution. And Japan's Takata Corp. admitted hiding evidence for years that its air bags could explode and kill people. Revelations about the two companies raised questions about just how routinely auto companies lie and cheat.
- Easy-Money Reversal. The Federal Reserve started cutting interest rates in June 2006 and then kept cutting. And cutting. When the federal funds rate got down to near zero, the Fed held rates there year after year. Finally, on Dec. 16 of 2015, the central bank's policymakers agreed to a quarter-percentage-point increase — to a range of 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent — for the fed funds rate, and very quickly, major banks began raising their prime rates. After nearly a decade of monetary stimulus, the Fed is now trying to tighten up on lending.
- Corporate Mergers. Company after company announced mergers and acquisitions that reshaped entire industries. Dealogic estimates the value of the transactions in 2015 approached $5 trillion, a record. Consumer groups were not happy as they watched former rivals join forces. For example, Dow Chemical and Dupont announced their marriage, as did Pfizer and Allergan and Walgreens and Rite Aid. And if such news makes you want to reach for a beer, remember the parent companies of Budweiser and Miller announced plans to become one big happy family.
While those events made headlines, the stories that may have been the most important to average Americans dealt with the monthly job reports.
Any one Labor Department report did not make major news, but as the year went along, the data showed employers kept hiring. That consistent expansion of jobs sent the unemployment rate into a steady decline, falling from 5.7 percent in January to 5 percent in November.
That helped push up wages, too, nickel by nickel.
And there was another incremental but important story: Many tech companies provided amazing gains for shareholders as innovators pushed forward with projects of all sizes, involving everything from fitness bands to driverless vehicles to rocket ships. Economic historians may well look back on 2015 and say the only business stories that really changed the world were the ones that featured geeks.