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Unexpected twists make 2008 an epochal year

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"Fate presents an opportunity wrapped in a necessity: to modernize multilateralism and markets. We must seize it," said World Bank President Robert Zoellick in an address to his Board of Governors this fall.

Perhaps the fraud revealed at the beginning of the year should have been a tip-off. On Jan. 19, the French bank Société Générale discovered and began unraveling a series of what it later called "massive fraudulent directional positions." A week later, French police arrested a junior trader named Jerome Kerviel and charged him with losing $7 billion via unauthorized financial activity.

The lost sum was larger than the bank's total market capitalization, and at the time the biggest such fraud in history. By the end of the year, however, it was easily topped, as US financier Bernard Madoff was arrested Dec. 11 and charged with running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, a swindle in which early investors are paid off with money from later ones.

It's possible that the alleged Madoff fraud will end up as not just the biggest bank scam, but among the most expensive individual criminal acts of all time.

But in truth, the biggest events of 2008 were not so much one-off actions as culminations of trends that had been building for years.

Even the election of Barack Obama can be seen as the result of a lengthy process. US disapproval of President Bush's job performance has been low for years, in large part due to the grinding war in Iraq.

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