Lionel Barber’s pick of the week

Introduction: General Motors moves inexorably toward bankruptcy; North Korea explodes a nuclear device; Microsoft and Google go head-to-head on search; oil prices continue to rise on the back of a grudging economic recovery; and more British MPs, embarrassed by their expenses, signal they will stand down after the next election.

And if you failed to read the Financial Times or this past week, you would have missed the following unique items…1) A riveting tea with the FT weekend interview with Bao Tong, one of the top Chinese Communist party officials imprisoned (and still under house arrest) after the Tiananmen massacre.  Jamil Anderlini’s account mixed sinister atmosphere with historical retrospective and gave the reader a wonderful insight into the strengths and weaknesses of modern China.  See also Geoff Dyer’s Analysis page on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen

2) Regulators identified Northern Rock as the weak link in the banking system in a “war gaming exercise” in 2004, three years before the fast-growing mortgage bank collapsed.  Norma Cohen and Chris Giles uncovered this damning fact after a blocked Freedom of Information request and much digging.

3) New technologies and different ways of working will transform the business landscape in Britain, according to a fascinating HSBC report by Brian Groom.  Name the future super cities (Brighton, Leeds, Liverpool, London and, Mike Ashley please note, Newcastle)

4) Brazil will invite international oil companies to bid for concessions in its “pre salt” oil fields rivaling North Sea finds – a contrast with resource nationalism in Mexico and Venezuela.  Carola Hoyos and Jonathan Wheatley broke the story after an interview with the Brazilian mines and energy minister. We also wrote an excellent follow-up editorial.

5) Saudi oil minister Ali Naimi says that the global economy has strengthened sufficiently to cope with oil at $80 a barrel. Javier Blas broke the story after jogging with the minister in the early morning in Vienna. Oil prices (and Javier’s heart-rate) immediately spiked – to $63, almost double their February low.

6) Peter Voser, chief executive-designate of Shell, will announce a far-reaching management shake-up and reorganisation of the oil major.  Ed Crooks delivered a comprehensive news story and analysis ahead of the official announcement, plus a next day follow-up – all on his week off.

7) Exploding debt threatens America and its AAA sovereign debt rating, according to John Taylor, former deputy US treasury secretary and noted Stanford University professor.  Taylor’s opinion piece was among the most read on for most of the week. Mike McKenzie in New York also did sterling work on this key story, highlighting the fears about US government finance more than 10 days ago. This past week, Mike noted that investors were dumping Treasuries as they abandoned hedging strategies designed for a falling rate environment. Rates fell for the next two days, suggesting Mike had it right.

8) Henny Sender revealed that Fortress and other private equity firms were nearing a deal to make a big push into retail banking, a story confirmed two days later when the deal was announced.

9) Matthew Green’s fascinating and alarming account of the hottest natural energy producer in Africa: Equatorial Guinea. Target of a military coup organised by Mark Thatcher and a dodgy Etonian, Equatorial Guinea is a potent combination of corruption and wealth.

10) Gilbert and George’s stylish diary of their trip to Hong Kong to attend Bernard Arnault’s modern art show, a mixture of glitz and haut fashion.

Special reports highlights: The second FT Health magazine, with outstanding articles by Clive Cookson, Andrew Jack and Nicholas Timmins (Nick’s piece on computerised medical records is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn why these projects are so hard to manage). Seb Morton-Clark produced an excellent video of Ed Crooks in Aberdeen to accompany the Energy report.
Robert Wright took one of the most revealing pictures of the week to accompany his Transport & Logistics report – of the Eugen Maersk, one of the world’s biggest ships, piled high with containers but riding high in the water because those containers are all empty. In another innovation, Robert’s report on linked to his own shipping photos on Flickr.

News from This week, the website launched its most ambitious interactive project yet. ‘The Pensions Crisis‘ arrived after weeks of work by Cynthia O’Murchu, Helen Warrell, Norma Cohen, Matthew Vincent and Steve Bernard. Videos were produced by Josh Noble and Dan Garrahan. The feature – an exhaustive combination of video, audio and data – was well received by viewers, making its mark on the most read two days running.

The Arena debate on foreign aid continued to rage, overseen by Sarah Laitner. This week’s contributors included Jeffrey D. Sachs and Dambisa Moyo herself.  And we had an opinion piece from Mo Ibrahim, the celebrated telecoms entrepreneur.  Note how other publications are now following our debate.

Corporate news watch:
Ken Li produced a global exclusive that Time Warner was leaning toward a complete spin-off of its AOL unit, a story confirmed by the company the following day.
Sunny Tucker landed a rare scoop interview with Ajay Banga, head of Citigroup’s Asian operations, who said the bank would expand lending across the region rather than selling off assets as some had thought.
Kevin Done did a fine job dissecting Virgin’s earnings and nailing the story behind the sugar-coated press release.
Isabel Gorst did sterling work to get to the bottom of the politicking at the heart of TNK-BP.

Spot of the week: Buy American provisions are hurting US exporters as foreign markets start to boycott American goods. Sarah O’Connor delivered an insightful story behind the news.

GM, Opel and the future of the car industry: This has been an intense week of fast-moving developments across continents.  Our coverage has shone thanks to good teamwork by John Reed, Daniel Schaefer, and Bernard Simon, assisted by Bertrand Benoit and other foreign correspondents. Andrew Slade overcame being a man down on the desk to provide relentless updates on the unfolding drama.

Leader of the week: The devastating commentary on Silvio Berlusconi’s rule  (“Burlesque cronies”) which triggered a flood of letters.

Insight of the week: Tony Barber’s Global Dispatch on the tenure and status of Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission.  The headline was perfect because it echoed the punchline: “If the EU is a game of poker, he (Barroso) is player whom the others let stay in – providing he is never dealt higher than a pair.”

Stakhanovite of the week: Tough call as ever, but standout was Christian Oliver, ably backed up by Song Jung-a, who brought us blow by blow accounts of twin stories rocking the Korean peninsula: the suicide of Roh Moo-hyun and the detonation of a nuclear warhead in North Korea. Christian broke his holiday (and abandoned his parents in the South Korean countryside) to return to Seoul immediately on hearing of Roh’s suicide.  Hundreds of thousands of Koreans took to the streets for the funeral at the end of the most dramatic week in the country’s history since it went democratic in 1987.  Christian delivered a classy obit, insightful analysis and still had time to work with US correspondents on the fall-out from Pyongyang’s the nuclear test.

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