U.S. Markets closed

The business stories of the decade, including the BP oil spill, the Libor scandal and Cambridge Analytica

U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

Deepwater Horizon spill 2010

Key players: Tony Hayward, Barack Obama

What happened? The largest marine oil spill in history caused by an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers. The well took nearly three months to cap.

Impact? Tony Hayward, then chief executive of BP, became US public enemy number one after a series of PR gaffes. The fallout cost him his job, frayed relations between the UK and the Obama administration and threatened the future of the 101-year-old company. BP has paid more than $65 billion in compensation.

The rise of Tesla 2010

Key players: Elon Musk (CEO); Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning (co-founders)

What happened? Founded in 2003 to create effective electric cars and sell them to the masses. Elon Musk arrived a year later and gave much of the initial capital support to run it before its float in 2010.

Impact? It has changed the landscape of the car industry and influenced what kinds of cars its rivals make, what they look like and their tech features. But there have been problems, and Tesla has never had a profitable year.

Libor 2008-2012

Key players: Central banks, Mervyn King, Tim Geithner, Barclays, most big banks.

What happened? It started quietly, but by the end at least 10 regulators across the globe were investigating if Libor was fixed. The London Interbank Offered Rate was a nominal fee banks charged each other to lend money for short periods. As the financial crisis bit, banks panicked. Libor jumped. It was alleged bank chiefs and some central banks conspired to make Libor look lower than it really was.

Impact? The British Bankers’ Association handed oversight of Libor to more formal watchdogs. Litigation continues.

Pfizer fails in Astra bid 2014

Key players: Pascal Soriot (Astra), Ian Read (Pfizer).

What happened? Pfizer’s £69.4 billion aggressive pursuit of AstraZeneca triggered huge fees for bankers, a mud-slinging battle from investors, union condemnation, sparring from US and UK politicians — but ultimately, no deal. Arguments that Pfizer’s hunger for Astra was inspired by corporate tax manoeuvring, rather than innovation, and fears over British jobs and the UK science base led to a strong campaign to keep AstraZeneca independent.

Impact? It was all about money. Had Pfizer’s final offer of £55 per share hit £60, it would likely have had its appetite satisfied. As it is, today Astra’s shares stand considerably higher at £72. Boss Pascal Soriot can fairly claim vindication; he’s successfully resuscitated Astra’s once-dwindling R&D, and last year presided over the drugmaker’s return to growth for the first time since 2014.

VW’s emissions cheating 2015

Key players: VW CEO Martin Winterkorn, the US Environmental Protection Agency.

What happened? In one of the largest corporate scandals of all time Volkswagen was found by the US Environmental Protection Agency to have installed software in cars that lowered harmful emissions of nitrogen compounds under test conditions. Volkswagen admitted to manipulating 11 million vehicles worldwide to fool tests.

Impact? The scandal led to a slump in car sales across Europe. It deeply hurt the German economy and led to mistrust in its executives. Chief executive Herbert Diess, chairman Hans Dieter Pötsch and former chief exec Martin Winterkorn have all been charged with stock market manipulation for their alleged failure to reveal the scandal.

BHS and Philip Green fall 2016

Key players: Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell.

What happened? High Street retailer BHS sensationally collapsed into administration with a huge pensions deficit in April 2016, costing around 9,000 jobs. That came 13 months after tycoon Sir Philip Green sold BHS for £1 to a firm led by serial bankrupt Dominic Chappell.

Impact? All the chain’s 164 shops closed. A lengthy probe by MPs followed and concluded Green had chosen to rush a sale of the chain to a buyer who was “manifestly unsuitable”. Green faced calls to be stripped of his knighthood and had a dust-up with Sky News while on holiday in Greece. However, pressure on him seemingly softened when he made a voluntary contribution of up to £363 million to rescue the BHS pension scheme. Chappell was last month banned from being a director for 10 years. Green has since faced allegations of sexual harassment, which he denies.

Rupert Murdoch sells Sky 2018

Key players: Rupert Murdoch, Brian Roberts (Comcast CEO), Bob Iger (Disney CEO).

What happened? The sale of Rupert Murdoch’s satellite TV empire to US cable company Comcast for £30 billion was the near end of an empire. He no longer bestrides UK media as he had done for decades. Murdoch originally planned to sell Sky to Disney, until Comcast arrived. A bidding war took the price from £20 billion to £30 billion.

Impact? Hard to gauge yet. Sky remains the key broadcaster of movies and sport in the UK. But it is likely to face intense future competition from Netflix, Amazon and perhaps Facebook.

Cambridge Analytica 2018

Key players: Mark Zuckerberg.

What happened? In 2018, revelations of Facebook’s involvement with data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica shed light on the darker side of people-snooping. It emerged Cambridge Analytica, hired by Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, had gained access to private data on more than 50 million Facebook users, as well as making tools to help firms target users with personalised political ads.

Impact? The scandal soon widened — especially when it emerged that Facebook had known about the data breach since 2015, but only suspended the firm from its site three years later. Allegations arose about Vote Leave, Facebook and a linked Cambridge Analytica firm too. “We’re sorry!” claimed ads put out by Facebook; it also vowed to investigate other apps’ data use. But a #DeleteFacebook campaign saw billions of dollars knocked off Facebook’s stock market valuation.

Carillion's collapse 2018

Key players: Richard Howson (former CEO), Philip Green (chairman)

What happened? Construction giant Carillion went into liquidation in January 2018. The government contractor had been on a knife-edge since a profit warning six months prior shocked the City with huge write-offs on major contracts. Despite talks with lenders and government, no rescue deal could be agreed and Carillion crumbled under debts of £1.5 billion. It employed around 20,000 people in the UK.

Impact? Almost 12,000 subcontractors worked directly for Carillion when it went under, and scores of firms faced the prospect of going unpaid. There has been increased scrutiny on government outsourcing and auditor work since.

Neil Woodford’s crash 2019

Key players: Neil Woodford, Hargreaves Lansdown.

What happened? Star fund manager Neil Woodford, recipient of billions through platforms like Hargreaves Lansdown, was forced to block people from withdrawing cash from his flagship equity fund. Regulators revealed Woodford breached requirements on unlisted stocks, provoking a public backlash. Woodford wound up the fund after failing to reopen.

Impact? The scandal shook public trust in fund management and raised questions over platforms like Hargreaves and fund administrator Link. Woodford had been promoted by Hargreaves despite offering armchair savers an ill-suited risky, illiquid fund. Link was also under fire for failing to clamp down on Woodford’s excesses listing shares on illiquid markets. This month M&G was also forced to gate its illiquid property fund.

Honourable mentions

The horsemeat scandal (2013), Tesco’s accounting black hole (2014), HBOS Reading (2017), Kraft fails in Unilever bid (2017), Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn imprisoned (2018), Martin Sorrell exits WPP (2018), Thomas Cook fails (2019)