The 10 Biggest Wall Street Surprises of the Year

The Obama administration, which had every incentive to lower expectations for a recovery in the jobs market, predicted in January 2009 that unemployment would never go above 8 percent. As 2010 draws to a close and the jobless figure hovers around 9.6 percent, the U.S. would kill for unemployment that low.

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In an age when the government seems to be cuddled up in bed with big business, it's amazing to see a bill that even pays lip service to Wall Street reform making it past the President's desk.

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In theory, we might have guessed that the populist, anti-tax and anti-reform Tea Party uprising -- a movement spawned in part by the rantings of a former financial executive -- was bankrolled by two of America's wealthiest men. The confirmation was shocking nonetheless.

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The Wall Street titan's $550 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission was the largest in history. A little less surprising: the penalty is microscopic compared to Goldman's bottom line.

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In an unusual move, FBI agents (who typically opt for more genteel subpoenas), searched the offices of three hedge funds in late November as part of a far-reaching insider trading investigation. It's still unclear whether the raids will produce successful high-profile prosecutions, but the authorities' novel approach to insider-trading law provided for the shocking possibility that the government can think creatively about corporate malfeasance.

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One might have expected that after three years of subprime mortgage-related destruction, the banking system might have eliminated housing-market troubles. This was not at all the case. When GMAC took the unprecedented step of suspending foreclosures to review the legality of its paperwork, it was the beginning of a new chapter in the housing crisis. Major lenders disclosed that they were reviewing foreclosure practices amid reports of shoddy and fraudulent conduct. Although it remains unclear what impact the advent of robo-signers and putbacks will have on Wall Street, the Congressional Oversight Panel is deeply concerned, and pundits are watching closely to see to what extent the lenders will be held to account.

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The nominal price of gold has been shooting through the roof throughout the year, hitting astonishing levels. Although some dispute the legitimacy of the metal's climb, its rise has nonetheless served as an incessant reminder of our economic precariousness.

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September is historically the worst-performing month of the year for U.S. stocks. Not so in 2010, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average logged a 7.7 percent September gain. Could this mean Wall Street is on its way to sweet recovery? Since displaying September strength, the blue-chip index has logged a much more modest 1.7 percent increase.

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The near-1,000-point pummeling of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which took place in the span of minutes, was the Dow's largest-ever intraday dive. The shock resulted in widespread distrust of U.S. stocks, and in the wake of the disruption, billions of dollars poured out the market as mutual-fund investors fled.

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Even though the economy has been stagnant throughout 2010, corporate profits reached an all-time high in the third quarter of this year. That said, the improvement resulted at least in part from staff layoffs, and many U.S. businesses are benefiting from operations in economies like China and India.

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