In a year marked by BP's massive oil spill and BHP Billiton's failed bid for Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, one theme permeated business stories in 2010: the painfully slow rate at which Western economies toddled towards full economic recovery.

The words used by Jennifer Lee, a senior economist with BMO Capital Markets, on Dec. 1 to describe the latest U.S. Federal Reserve survey of American economic conditions could have been used anytime during the year:


The Roberts Bank container and coal port near Tsawwassen, B.C., in September. Growing demand for commodities helped push the loonie higher in 2010. ((CBC))

"Economic activity hasn't taken a turn for the worse, but it hasn't picked up at a noticeable pace either."

Canada managed to more than regain the 417,000 jobs lost in the recession, but the average time out of work remained at a 10-year high of more than 19 weeks.

Continuing high unemployment and a struggling housing market in Canada's biggest trading partner reached north across the border, most noticeably when Statistics Canada reported on Nov. 30 that gross domestic product grew only 0.3 per cent in the three months ending in September.

YOUR top business story of 2010:

Forget the endless updates about the strength of the recovery, the bid for PotashCorp or BP's oil spill.

No one story on these subjects received the most hits on the Money page this year.

The single most popular story was the report on May 25 that showed that Google's playable version of Pac-Man on its homepage on one day the week earlier had gobbled up productivity.

It led web surfers to spend almost five million man-hours playing it, according to a study by Seattle-based time-management software company Rescue Time.

Rescue Time extrapolated the findings on how much extra search time 11,000 of its own users spent that day across the 504 million users Google gets every day to come up with a total of 4.8 million more man-hours spent on the page.

Part of that was a decline in exports, which were hobbled by the rise in the Canadian dollar against its U.S. counterpart.

The loonie first crossed parity on April 6, although it didn't close above par until April 14.

It got another boost after the U.S. Fed announced its long-awaited program on Nov. 2 of boosting the American money supply by buying up $600 billion in U.S. government debt over a period to mid-2011, in a move to keep interest rates low in order to stimulate the economy.

Still, from the beginning of November, although the loonie came close to par 15 times, it did not break through parity even once.

The Fed's program helped lift the Toronto Stock Exchange, beginning in August, as the central bank began to signal that it would embark on the bond-buying program. The TSX went on to a gain for the year of about 12 per cent.

The loonie was also buoyed by growing demand from emerging economies, especially China, for the commodities Canada produces. That, and the falling U.S. dollar, pushed commodities — which are priced in greenbacks — higher.

The average price over the year of gold and silver rose by 23 per cent from 2009, while copper gained close to 45 per cent. Palladium was up almost 90 per cent.

Striving to feed that demand for commodities was one motive behind BHP Billiton's hostile $38.6 billion US bid, announced on Aug. 17, for PotashCorp.

That was rebuffed by PotashCorp, as too low, and ultimately killed by Ottawa on Nov. 2 on the grounds the deal was not of net benefit for Canada.


BP operates a deep sand cleaning operation in Orange Beach, Ala., in November. ((Dave Martin/Associated Press))

Among the most tragic business stories of the year started unfolding on April 20, when Transocean's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig — leased by BP — exploded and sank, killing 11.

The ensuing oil spill would soil the coast of the Gulf of Mexico until the leaking well was finally plugged on July 15.

By Nov. 30, BP had reached deals to sell off more than $20 billion US in assets on its way to coming up with the $30 billion to help cover the compensation bill for the spill.

General Motors also was doing some selling in 2010, when the U.S., Canadian and Ontario governments and a union health trust made their shares available for the automaker's $23.1 billion initial public offering of shares on Nov. 18.

The proceeds raised $1.7 billion for the federal and Ontario governments, which had put $9.5 billion into the firm as it went through bankruptcy protection in 2009.

Perhaps that will help Ottawa on its way to paying down its deficit, which the government is still committed to doing by fiscal 2015-16, although on December 3 it said it would be flexible about that target, depending on the strength of the recovery.

A month earlier, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page had expressed skepticism about the government hitting that target and handicapped its chances at "slim to none."


Traders at the General Motors post at the New York Stock Exchange on Nov. 18, the first day of trading after GM's initial public offering. ((Mark Lennihan/Associated Press))

Still, Ottawa's problems with its deficits had nothing on Europe's weaker members.

In May, the International Monetary Fund and the EU bailed out Greece with $141 billion and the two came to the rescue of Ireland and its banks on November 28 with $91 billion.

Keep an eye on Portugal and Spain in 2011.

Also bailed out in 2010 was former media baron, Conrad Black, who won release from prison on July 19, pending a review of his conviction for fraud by an appeal court.

On Oct. 29, the 7th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned two of his fraud convictions but also upheld one count of fraud and one for obstruction of justice.

Black and his colleagues were originally convicted in 2007 of defrauding investors of Hollinger International.

The twin spectres of excessive Canadian household debt and a domestic housing bubble started rattling their chains in February, but despite pacing the halls all year, never did take material form.

Gluskin Sheff, RBC Economics and TD Economics, among others, mused about a possible housing bubble in February, a theme right down to Nov. 17, when Dean Baker of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research said he saw no reason why average home prices in Canada should be about 50 per cent higher than in the U.S.

Household debt a worry

On Feb. 16, the Vanier Institute of the Family warned about Canadians' personal debts, something echoed by TD chief economist Craig Alexander on Oct. 20 and repeatedly by the Bank of Canada.

The bank governor, Mark Carney, on Dec. 13 warned that when interest rates do begin to rise again, the repercussions may be swift and fierce and have the potential to catch many with debt loads they can no longer afford.

And that prompted more speculation about what will likely be one of the major business stories of 2011: after hiking its benchmark rate three times to the current level of one per cent, when will the bank resume raising interest rates?