Business 2001: The Good, Bad and Bankrupt

A lot of companies, business leaders and workers would like to put 2001 behind them. And that's not including the unfortunate employees possessing an Enron 401(k) plan.

On the balance, it was a year in which bad business news outweighed the good in the United States, with the economy slipping into its first recession in a decade, unemployment rising, corporate profits taking a hit and the high-tech bubble continuing to deflate.

And that was the outlook even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to tens of thousands more layoffs, slowed consumer spending, knocked the travel and tourism businesses for a loop, and helped feed a growing sense of uncertainty about the economy's direction.

But the year was not without its bright spots, either. Which companies, workers and CEOs fared the best in 2001? And who performed the worst? Read on for our 2001 picks and pans.

Company

Up: Microsoft

Love them or hate them, here's what Bill Gates & Co. accomplished this year: They had their court-ordered breakup overturned in June, settled the antitrust case with the Department of Justice in October (although nine states are still contesting it), and launched their new operating system later in the month. Oh, and the stock price rose from $43 to $68.

Down: Enron

Could any company possibly have had a worse year than Enron? The biggest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history was bad enough. But now begin the government investigations into dubious accounting practices, a suspect 401(k) plan and $55 million in bonuses paid to some employees right before the company cratered.

CEO

Hot: Michael Dell

Quick, name the one personal computer maker turning profits during the PC slump. It's Dell, whose vaunted production-on-demand system is made to order for tough times. Critics say Michael Dell's bare-bones approach hinders innovation, but supporters say his most important innovations lie in the way the company does business.

Not: Jacques Nasser

The Ford Motor Co. started 2001 hoping to pass General Motors in sales for the first time since the 1930s. Instead, business slumped and CEO Jacques Nasser antagonized dealers, union leaders and colleagues to the point where a Ford family member — William Clay Ford Jr. — is now in charge of the automaker for the first time since the 1970s. The Firestone tire fiasco hardly helped matters, either.

Profession

In: Public Servants

Underpaid, overworked and seemingly undervalued before Sept. 11, firefighters, policemen, nurses and other medical employees gained more respect in the public eye after the terrorist attacks. And postal workers gained a new measure of sympathy after two died from inhalation anthrax in October.

Out: Baggage Screeners

Lax airport screening was a key part of the Sept. 11 hijackings. In the weeks that followed, repeated cases of people carrying weapons past security — while others had their hat pins confiscated — only helped Congress decide to make the nation's 28,000 baggage screeners federal employees. The good news for screeners who are able to join the new government force: pay raises and benefits.

Industry

Up: Housing

A relatively tranquil sector during an economic storm. Sure, there were cracks showing after Sept. 11, but housing starts have been stable despite worries of a downturn. Indeed, low interest rates spurred a wave of buying and re-financing in the fall, and warm weather helped housing starts rise by 8.2 percent in November — although that could mean fewer people will be investing in the American dream come 2002.

Down: Telecoms

Forget imploding dot-coms, grounded airlines and paralyzed PC makers; the telecom free-fall tops them all. Consider: Telecoms have defaulted on more than $20 billion in high-yield debt this year — about half of all such defaults in the country. Big names like Covad and PSINet entered Chapter 11, while some bankruptcies are costing taxpayers billions and the fiber-optics suppliers hit new lows. JDS Uniphase declared the biggest one-year loss in corporate history — $51 billion — while Nortel lost $20 billion in one quarter and embattled Lucent announced more than 40,000 layoffs.

Product

Hot: File-Swapping

You thought Napster was popular? Music file-swapping services without a Napster-like central server have quietly become more heavily used than their predecessor (now much-diminished after legal action) ever was. Fans now flock to places like Kazaa, Aimster and Napigator — which also may present a tougher legal challenge for the major record labels.

Not: The Personal Computer

It was a historical year for the PC. Historically bad, that is. Sales took a prolonged dip for the first time since 1986 and Dell was the only one of the leading PC makers not to struggle, while Hewlett-Packard's merger with Compaq ran into troubles when investors questioned the rationale behind joining together two companies with dipping desktop sales.

Marketing Strategy

In: Wrapping the Flag Around Your Brand

After Sept. 11, scores of companies changed their ad campaigns to incorporate patriotic themes — especially car companies, like the Chevrolet ("Keep America Rolling") and Ford ("Ford Drives America"). Even the New York Stock Exchange pronounced it time to "Let Freedom Ring." Is this simply opportunism or a savvy way to get Americans to spend? Most likely a bit of both.

Out: Putting Your Name on a Stadium

It's getting hard to keep track of the formerly high-flying companies whose names may be coming off ballparks and sports arenas from coast to coast due to financial struggles or buyouts: PSINet (Baltimore Ravens), TWA (St. Louis Rams), CMGI (New England Patriots) and Enron (Houston Astros), among others. And San Francisco's Candlestick Park may not be called "3Com" next season.

Televised Ad Campaign

Hot: "The New York Miracle"

The funny "New York Miracle" ads put celebrities in incongruous positions (Henry Kissinger rounding the bases in Yankee Stadium, Yogi Berra leading the Philharmonic) and brought some much-needed humor to the airwaves after Sept. 11. But that wasn't really Woody Allen ice-skating, was it?

Not: Mastercard's Baseball Ads

This cloying series of ads, showing two college-age guys in a Volkswagen bus touring ballparks, led to a lawsuit from a pair of independent filmmakers who say their movie got copied — just one year after the credit card giant sued Ralph Nader for copyright infringement over his campaign ads. Hearty chuckle at the irony: Priceless.

Economic Indicator

Good: Inflation

As tough as times have been, one constant has kept Americans from feeling even more financial pain: low inflation. Stable prices have allowed the Federal Reserve has cut interest rates 11 times this year in its attempt to jump-start the economy. Despite the current recession, a whole generation of Americans has grown up without feeling the pain of 1970s-style double-digit inflation.

Bad: Unemployment

Even before Sept. 11, the jobs picture was looking gloomy, with increased layoffs as corporate America started downsizing. Since the attacks, things have only gotten worse, with unemployment surging to 5.7 percent in November, the highest level in six years. The silver lining: That's still a lower rate than the United States had during the 1990-1991 recession.

Long-Term Trend

Reassuring: Energy Prices

Energy prices, which can have a huge ripple effect in the economy, have remained low despite all the turmoil in the Middle East. Springtime talk of an "energy crisis" has quieted down, California's power shortage resolved itself and even gas prices have dropped under $1.00 a gallon in some parts of the country.

Disappointing: Productivity

Turns out U.S. productivity levels haven't been so remarkable after all. In August the Labor Department revised 1997-2000 productivity gains to an average of 2.6 percent, not the previously-estimated 3.2 percent. That's still a good figure by historical standards, but puts a bit of a damper on the notion of the technology-driven productivity revolution. And that was before Sept. 11 started distracting workers and adding to their fears.

Analyst

In: Ravi Suria Suria, a bond specialist, left Lehman Brothers to join a large hedge fund earlier this year, but his sharp critiques of debt-heavy high-tech firms resonated throughout 2001. How influential were his evaluations of Amazon.com? The SEC reportedly investigated Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in the spring to find out if Bezos' decision to sell 800,000 company shares was based on a sneak preview of a negative Suria report that had not been made public.

Out: Henry Blodget

Merrill Lynch's Internet cheerleader accepted a buyout after a few too many dot-com stock picks bombed. Meanwhile, Merrill settled a court case this year with a disgruntled investor who said Blodget's "buy" recommendation on InfoSpace arose from a conflict of interest. And now the New York State Attorney General is investigating Blodget.

IPO

Up: Accenture

In a diminished market for companies going public — the number of initial public offerings fell from 429 in 2000 to 78 this year, as of early December — only a few stand out. Kraft Foods, Agere Systems and Prudential had the biggest IPOs. Another winner was management consultant Accenture, which raised $1.7 billion, the seventh-biggest IPO of the year, and has since seen its share price nearly double, a greater percentage increase than any of companies producing bigger offerings.

Down: Loudcloud

This 1990s-style dot-com infrastructure firm headed by former Netscape wunderkind Marc Andressen went public in March, long after many potential clients had vanished. Some newly-public companies have seen their share prices fall further this year, but Loudcloud — down from $6 to $3.45 — opened low, has lost more than 40 percent of its value anyway and was far behind the curve. What was the point?

ABCNEWS.com's A. Adam Glenn, Romy Ribitzky and Catherine Valenti contributed to this report.