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Analysis: Global business decade in review

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
  • The past decade was the most lucrative in human history
  • Factors that defined business in the last decade: China, technology and speed.
  • Executive: "This is about going from one reality to the next reality"

(CNN) -- The new century did not begin on Jan. 1, 2000 -- it started on Sept. 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed.

At least, that's what Vivek Ranadive, chairman and chief executive officer of U.S. software maker TIBCO, thinks history will remember -- much like World War I is now considered the start of the 20th Century, an event that changed the landscape of the decades to come.

At the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China, last September, where Ranadive made his comments, the 1,500 company and government leaders who gathered agreed the business world was undergoing a fundamental change.

The Great Recession was the biggest news event in a decade filled with blockbuster business news. The decade was bookended by financial implosions -- the dotcom crash of 2000 and the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008, which turned the smoldering burn of the 2007 subprime mortgage market collapse into a global banking crisis. Even as developed economies are timidly stepping back into growth, the late November debt crisis in Dubai showed how the economic shockwaves of the collapse still reverberate around the globe.

But through the lens of the financial crisis you get a clear picture of the factors that have defined the business world of the last decade: China, technology and speed.

The world grew rich

If businesses are judge by their bottom line, the bottom line of the past decade is this: It was the most lucrative in human history.

Video: Business decade in review

Take just one measurement by the International Monetary Fund -- fixed-income securities, which essentially are the global savings of the world. In 2000, that stood at $36 trillion globally. Today, it's around $83 trillion, a more than twofold increase -- thanks to the growth of China and the rest of the developing world.

If the decade had ended 16 months ago, the business story of the decade would undisputedly be China. The spectacular closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics on Aug. 24 in Beijing would have been the defining image of the past ten years if the bankruptcy of investment giant Lehman Brothers hadn't cratered just three weeks later.

China opened for business in the 90s, but really came into its own this past decade. China only joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Now it's the world's third largest economy. In 1999, the per capita income of Chinese urban dwellers was $700 -- by 2008 that climbed to $2,300.

With its new wealth, China -- along with Russia, India, Brazil and rest of the newly rich in the developing world -- invested heavily in the U.S., creating the feeding frenzy of investments in subprime real estate from which the financial crisis was born.

Crisis culprit: Technology

The decade began with the bust of the dotcom bubble. But technology fed the incredible growth in the past decade.

The infrastructure of technology has ballooned. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, among its member nations in 2001, an average of two households per 100 had broadband connections. By 2009, 23 households per 100 had broadband.

Globally, mobile phone use went from unique to ubiquity: mobile phone penetration was 8 percent in 1999, compared to 64 percent today, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

But technology also was an essential accomplice in the financial crisis. Technological advances in banking promulgated derivative financial products, those "Weapons of Mass Destruction" as Warren Buffet famously called them.

Banks were able to spit out these new complex products because of increases in technology used by the banks. Derivatives traders I spoke with during the crisis said they were able to take a derivatives product a competitor put out, analyze it and reverse engineer an identical product in a matter of hours. This stoked the competitive drive to create and sell more of these products, creating a large financial house of cards that finally fell.

Reversal of fortunes

Jim Turley, the CEO of accounting giant Ernst & Young, said what defined the past decade was the speed of change.

Becoming a CEO in the last decade, he saw two recessions in that period -- one at the beginning and the current deeper one.

"I've seen the global turmoil that happened after Sept. 11 and the aftermath; I've seen the turmoil in our profession and restructuring in our profession after Enron," he said.

"I've now seen up close and personal the financial crisis and the banking crisis. Very importantly we've seen the importance of emerging markets just scream to the world about how vital they are," Turley added

This has been a decade punctuated by breathtakingly quick changes in fortunes, changes in players, changes in government policies that impact business. Enron was the seventh largest company in the world shortly before its downfall. A month before it happened, no one could have predicted the fall of Lehman Brothers, or the U.S. administration under President George W. Bush stepping in to prop up banks.

The stunning reversal of fortunes in the past decade underlines how quickly businesses must change tack, and the increasing pressure that puts on executives to make quick decisions with incomplete information. As the banking industry saw, the past decade ushered in an age where record bonuses one year could be followed by massive waves of layoffs.

"We have to look in the mirror ... and see that what is in front of us is very different from what we see in the mirror behind us," said Ben J. Verwaayen, chief executive officer of Alcatel-Lucent, at Dalian.

"This crisis isn't about when will we restore order; this is about going from one reality to the next reality," he said. "We'll have different values, different criteria of success, and different environmental issues to deal with. That will require different leadership."

CNN's Nini Suet contributed to this report