How the mighty have risen only to fail

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am


The power and experience accumulated over a thousand years may be gone in a single morning. So goes a well-known Cantonese saying.

I must be hitting middle age because many people considered heroes and towering figures during the height of America's global power in the 1990s are now being treated as villains or buffoons. Leonard Cohen used to sing: 'I've seen the nations rise and fall. Heard their stories, heard them all.' I have not lived long enough to see that. But I have lived long enough to see spectacular careers rise and crash.

If, before the Western financial crisis, you were asked to name three people who dominated the financial world, chances were you'd pick Sandy Weill of Citigroup, Hank Greenberg of AIG and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway. All three financial titans spent decades building their empires.

Today, Buffett is the only one left standing. Fans and hacks still flock to Berkshire's annual meeting, as they did last weekend, to hang on to every word of wisdom uttered by the Oracle of Omaha. Greenberg was ousted from AIG shortly before the crisis, while Weill, watching from retirement, saw his creation crumble during it. Both 'too big to fail', AIG and Citi had to be bailed out by US taxpayers so many times that people have lost count.

Again, if you were asked to name three of the world's most influential financial officials, you would probably follow Time magazine's famous 1999 cover, 'The committee to save the world'. It featured Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Greenspan was treated like a god during his tenure as US Fed chief, but is now remembered as a serial bubble-blower whose fanatical free-market policies led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Rubin, a former US treasury chief, saw his reputation ruined for being a senior adviser at Citigroup. Only Summers is still respected, although his time as US President Barack Obama's economic policy chief has been controversial.

As our own Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen heads off into the sunset, his reputation having taken a beating, he might find consolation in the rise and fall of these greater names.