2006: The Year in Business

The business world saw a variety of dramas play out during the last 12 months -- from a venerable tech company spying on its employees to one of the world's richest men pledging billions to charity.

Indeed, there was no shortage of story lines in 2006.

American automakers struggled to handle the rise of foreign competition, and the real estate market finally saw a downturn after years of prosperity.

Despite a calendar littered with bad news and scandal at several prominent American companies, the year ended with stock markets completing the rebound from the post-Sept. 11 crash -- setting new record highs in the Dow Jones industrial average and giving investors hope for an even better 2007.

Here's a quick refresher of the most compelling news stories from the world of business in 2006:

Hewlett Packard and Pretexting

Pssst. Wanna buy some phone records? Hewlett Packard, one of the world's largest tech companies, did just that during 2006 and got embroiled in a controversy that landed on Capitol Hill and led to the ouster of several top executives.

HP was trying to figure out how secret board discussions were ending up on the front page. The company hired private investigators to pose as company officials and journalists to obtain cell phone records hoping to find the leak.

HP ended up agreeing to pay a fine of $14.5 million to settle civil claims with the state of California.

Some of the investigators and chairwoman Patricia Dunn ended up facing criminal indictments. HP can take credit for introducing the nation to the ominous-sounding word "pretext."

Real Estate Prices Take a Hit

The 2006 calendar year will be remembered as the return of the buyers market in residential real estate. At the start of the year, analysts had been consistently predicting a downturn in the housing market, but it hadn't come to be.

Prices for new and pre-owned homes were on the plus side for 2005 -- high single-digit growth -- and people were still buying.

Midway through 2006, though, buyer interest dried up, forcing builders to start tacking on exorbitant incentives to buy and pre-owned home sellers to drop their prices.

By the end of the year, median home prices were actually lower than the same time a year ago in some areas.

That "negative home price appreciation" has many people feeling a bit less wealthy at the end of 2006, and it has become a drag on consumer spending, according to the Federal Reserve.

American Autos in Trouble

At the dawn of the new year, Ford announced its "Way Forward" plan to get back on financial track, mirroring an effort by GM to cut costs and return to profitability.

Both auto giants hoped to make their businesses work by making massive cuts to production capacity -- both plants and workers.

GM and Ford were facing the prospect of unsustainable financial losses as American car buyers decided to buy from their Asian competitors.

By the end of this year, GM's late 2005 efforts began to pay off: Minor quarterly profits emerged and billions in future retirement and health-care benefit costs were moved off their books.

But Ford's efforts seemed to be coming up short, forcing the icon of American ingenuity to "accelerate" its plan at the midyear point.

The end of this industrial drama won't be known for years, but one measure of success was not looking good.

Both Ford and GM have market share to foreign competitors during the first 11 months of 2006.

Wal-Mart Wars

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and the nation's largest private employer, continued to battle a constant barrage of attacks from its critics about treatment of workers and suppliers.

While the company tried to "transform" itself to attract more affluent shoppers -- embracing fashionable clothing, which bombed, and environmentalism, which received plaudits and even a visit from Mr. Green himself, Al Gore -- critics pointed to the company's salary caps, revised attendance policy, and health-care plans that left some employees out in the cold.

The company started off 2006 with high hopes for growth and ended the year with dismal holiday sales after trying to change too much, too fast.

In 2007, the question will be whether the company can find its way again or whether it will remain dead in the water.

Hedge Fund Meltdown

They're big and they're secret. Many market analysts believe they provide almost half the buying and selling volume on Wall Street every day. They're hedge funds.

This year the call for increased regulation of the quickly growing industry grew stronger when Amaranth -- a big fund based in a nondescript office building just north of New York -- imploded almost overnight.

The hedge fund's natural-gas trader made some big bets from his apartment/office in Canada and lost the fund more than $6 billion in a little more than a week.

It remains to be seen whether Washington is going to be able to find the political capital to rein in these big-money, behind-the-scenes players.

Ken Lay Is Found Guilty, Then Dies

It took years and millions of taxpayer dollars to get Enron founder Ken Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling into a Houston federal courtroom to face charges for their roles in the Enron implosion.

A jury of their peers found the energy trading firm's former leaders guilty of fraud and conspiracy charges in late spring.

Within weeks of the verdict, Lay had died in Colorado -- apparently his heart gave out. A judge vacated his conviction and dismissed the indictment against Lay on Oct. 17, a decision based on a long legal precedent in this country.

Skilling reported to federal prison in December to begin serving his 24-year prison sentence.

Buffet Gives Away $40 Billion

With a few strokes of the pen, one of the world's most prolific investors signed away most of his $40 billion fortune in a ballroom in New York's Public Library.

Warren Buffet said he didn't want his grand fortune to become inherited wealth, and would rather it be given to the needy.

Most of his money -- made during decades of buying and selling companies and stock at his Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway -- will go to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund global health and education initiatives.

His children's charitable foundations also receive multibillion-dollar grants.

Gates Steps Down

Bill Gates, founder of software superpower Microsoft and the world's richest man, announced on June 15 that he'd be leaving the company in 2008.

Gates started Microsoft in 1975 -- a year when the concept of personal computing was not even a blip on the analog radar screen -- with his friend Paul Allen. The technology titan will be spending his "retirement" years running his $32 billion philanthropic foundation.

Economic Slowdown -- A Soft Landing?

When the year began, the economy was running at a sizzling 5.6 percent annual pace of growth. But Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his predecessor, the legendary Alan Greenspan, had already started putting on the economic breaks with a bunch of interest rate hikes to keep inflation in check.

By the end of 2006, growth had slowed to just 2.2 percent.

Economists were worried the Fed might have overstepped, but signs during the last three months of the year pointed to a potential "soft landing" for the economy.

Dow Tops 12K

While the overall economy was slowing down, the stock market was taking off.

The Dow Jones industrial average -- a composite index that tracks the value of the 30 biggest publicly traded companies in the United States -- topped its dot-com bubble highs on Oct. 3.

By Oct. 19, the Dow was closing above the 12,000 mark -- a big, round number greeted with tons of coverage and more than a few "huhs?" by people on Main Street.

While average people were feeling the economy slowing, Wall Street was reaping the benefits of 13 consecutive quarters of double-digit profit growth.

That solid performance helped push the markets to their best year in quite some time, and Wall Street bonuses climbed to their highest levels ever.

There was also a little "exuberance" -- arguably of the irrational kind -- as Google ticked past the $500 per share mark this year -- on Nov. 21 to be exact -- just more than two years after selling shares to the public.