Crash Landing

The Inside Story of How the World's Biggest Companies Survived an Economy on the Brink

About the Book

A kaleidoscopic account of the financial carnage of the pandemic, revealing the fear, grit, and gambles that drove the economy’s winners and losers—from a leading business reporter

“A true masterwork . . . perceptive, well researched, and captivating.”—David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-chairman of The Carlyle Group, bestselling author of How to Invest

It was the ultimate test for CEOs, and almost none of them saw it coming. In early March 2020, with the Dow Jones flirting with 30,000, the world’s biggest companies were riding an eleven-year economic high. By the end of the month, millions were out of work, iconic firms were begging for bailouts, and countless small businesses were in freefall. Slick consulting teams and country-club connections were suddenly of little use: Business leaders were fumbling in the dark, tossing out long-term strategy and making decisions on the fly—decisions that, they hoped, might just save them.

In Crash Landing, award-winning business journalist Liz Hoffman shows how the pandemic set the economy on fire—but if you look closely, the tinder was already there. After the global financial crisis in 2008, corporate leaders embraced cheap debt and growth at all costs. Wages flatlined. Millions were pushed into the gig economy. Companies crammed workers into offices, and airlines did the same with planes. Wall Street cheered on this relentless march toward efficiency, overlooking the collateral damage and the risks sowed in the process.

Based on astonishing access inside some of the world’s biggest and most iconic companies, Crash Landing is a kaleidoscopic account of the most remarkable period in modern economic history, revealing—through gripping, fly-on-the-wall reporting—how CEOs battled an economic catastrophe for which there was no playbook: among them, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, blindsided by a virus in the middle of a high-stakes effort to go public; American Airlines’ Doug Parker, shuttling between K Street and the White House, determined to secure a multibillion-dollar bailout; and Ford’s Jim Hackett, as his assembly lines went from building cars to churning out ventilators.

In the tradition of Too Big to Fail and The Big Short, Crash Landing exposes the fear, grit, and gambles behind the pandemic economy, while probing its implications for the future of work, corporate leadership, and capitalism itself, asking: Will this remarkable time give rise to newfound resilience, or become just another costly mistake to be forgotten?
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Praise for Crash Landing

“This book reads like a suspense thriller because that’s what it is, even though every word is true.”—Brian Koppelman, co-creator, showrunner, and executive producer of Showtime’s Billions

“A riveting chronicle of the boardroom brinksmanship.”—Bradley Hope, bestselling author of Billion Dollar Whale

“Liz Hoffman offers something fresh and much needed: an insider tale of what it takes to steer a company—indeed, an economy—through a shock that nobody saw coming. The aspiring C-suite class should take note.”—Harvey Schwartz, former president of Goldman Sachs

“A rare look inside the split-second, high-stakes decisions at the top of America’s corporate giants . . . This book reflects Liz Hoffman’s rare combination of valuable gifts: vivid writing, incredible access and sourcing, and actual insight.”—Mary Childs, bestselling author of The Bond King, co-host of NPR’s Planet Money

“A momentous story told with the urgency of Too Big to Fail and the unforgettable characterizations of The Big Short.”—Brad Stone, bestselling author of Amazon Unbound and The Everything Store

“Those eager to prepare for the next crisis should read this book and heed its lessons.”—Gregory Zuckerman, bestselling author of The Man Who Solved the Market

“Savvy analysis and colorful reportage make this an engrossing boardroom view of an economic cataclysm.”Publishers Weekly

“A well-informed perspective on a devastating crisis.”—Kirkus Reviews
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Crash Landing



Steven Mnuchin was sick of talking about global warming.

Half an hour into a private dinner at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the conversation had been of little else. Executives from the biggest companies in the world had gathered in the ritzy ski town’s famed Grand Hotel Belvédère. A shrine to a nineteenth-century European version of wellness, nestled into the side of Davos’s steep hill, in recent times the hotel served as the power center of the annual summit. For one week a year in late January, snipers patrolled its rooftops as the world’s corporate elite gathered. It was a long and annoying trip, even by private jet, but the chance to rub elbows with their peers and senior government officials—and to be seen as masters of the universe, thought leaders for the century to come—was irresistible. Among the attendees at that evening’s dinner were Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Chevron’s Mike Wirth, IBM’s Ginni Rometty, Volkswagen chairman Herbert Diess, and Wall Street dealmaker Ken Moelis, along with Mnuchin and his colleague in Trump’s cabinet, Wilbur Ross, the octogenarian commerce secretary.

This kind of dinner was exactly what these corporate executives had come to the Alps for. Squeezed around a long table covered in white linen and dotted with fresh-cut flowers and elegant candle tapers, the group had somberly—if not soberly—discussed the need for more radical action on climate change.

It was the kind of tin-eared talk that was as much a part of Davos as alpaca-lined parkas and galosh-covered Armani loafers. The organization behind it all, the World Economic Forum, had been founded in 1971 by a Swiss university professor as a humble academic venue for resolving international conflicts and promoting shared prosperity.

But in recent years it had become a capitalist cheerfest, where the highest-tier tickets cost more than $500,000 and even a spartan hotel room fetched more than $600 a night. Corporate executives, hedge fund titans, and government officials disembarked from helicopters and black cars to spend five days doling out management advice to the developing world and patting themselves on the back for it. In 2020, more than a hundred billionaires were in attendance, and even for Mnuchin—a wealthy man himself, a former Goldman Sachs executive turned Hollywood producer who had been one of Trump’s first cabinet picks—the hypocrisy was a bit thick. He also thought their attention was misplaced.

“Global warming is an issue, but it’s not the only issue,” he told the room, as tuxedo-clad waiters circled to refill wine glasses. Iran’s nuclear program was growing more sophisticated by the day and should be higher than it was on everyone’s worry list, he said. “Also, you know, there’s a city of eleven million people in China that’s on lockdown.”

It was January 25, 2020, more than three weeks since the virus had been reported by Chinese authorities. It had already sickened some five hundred people in the country and killed seventeen, by the country’s official tally.

But how bad was it? Reports of the virus struck many of the evening’s attendees as the kind of thing that cropped up from time to time in the developing world—and China in particular. Decades after the communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong had penned a poem bidding “farewell to the god of plagues,” promising to eradicate a deadly parasitic fever, spread by the use of human waste as fertilizer, and bring China into the modern age, the country remained fertile ground for pathogens. Rapidly expanding cities butted up against stubborn old-world customs, creating the ideal conditions for what epidemiologists call “spillover,” in which diseases that might otherwise have circulated harmlessly through animal populations jump to humans, with unpredictable consequences. By 2004, a respiratory disease, SARS, had killed hundreds in China. It was later genetically traced to a colony of cave-dwelling bats, from which, experts theorized, it had jumped to civets, a small catlike mammal commonly sold for slaughter as a delicacy in village markets. Before that, in 1997, it was a virulent strain of flu that traveled from poultry to humans, stamped out only by the slaughter of millions of chickens. Another flu variant had originated in Hong Kong in 1968 and was ultimately blamed for as many as a million deaths globally.

Now, in late January 2020, a new virus had appeared. It didn’t yet have a name, much less a forensic footprint or a treatment protocol. But to those global observers who knew what to look out for, it had all the markings of a killer. While much remained unknown as Mnuchin admonished his fellow elites for their misplaced attention, it was clear the virus could spread between people. Early studies suggested it could live on surfaces, possibly for days. Chinese authorities had moved to seal off Wuhan ahead of the Lunar New Year, a major travel holiday that would send millions of people out from cities that were breeding grounds for a highly contagious disease back to their homes in suburbs and rural villages. Officials canceled planes and trains out of the city, and suspended subway and ferry service within it.

They were too late. Cases had already spread to neighboring countries, including Taiwan and Japan. And a few days before the conference in Davos, the virus had been confirmed in the United States, in a thirty-five-year-old Washington State man who had recently returned from China. An official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warned that “the virus may already be here. We just don’t have a test to know.”

But none of that had pricked the bubble of optimism at Davos. When the virus was raised at all, it was largely dismissed, notably by U.S. president Donald Trump, who, unlike his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush, had opted to attend the elite conclave. He had boasted in recent months about “the greatest economy ever,” which he believed would carry him to reelection for a second term in the fall. “We have it totally under control,” Trump told an interviewer in Davos—the first of what would prove to be a string of overly optimistic and often deliberately misleading comments from the president about a deadly virus.

Trump, for all his political blinders, wasn’t alone in shrugging off reports from halfway around the world. Nobody at Davos seemed particularly worried about the virus, not the hundreds of corporate executives in attendance nor the reporters who chased them down icy sidewalks and into exclusive parties in hopes of gleaning a morsel or two. “All the right things are happening,” the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Novartis told an anchor at CNBC, the financial-news channel. Attendees crammed into coat-check lines and swiped tooth-picked olives and cubed Gruyère off communal trays. They packed a chalet piano bar to hear pop star Jason Derulo perform and stayed for the aftershow, a turntable set by David Solomon, the Goldman Sachs CEO, who, in addition to running the country’s sixth-biggest bank, was a house-music deejay hobbyist.

Even as Mnuchin voiced his misgivings at dinner, he wasn’t exactly ringing the alarm bell publicly. In an interview that morning with CNBC, he hadn’t been asked about the coronavirus and hadn’t brought it up. He’d spent most of the interview talking up the Trump administration’s plans for further tax cuts. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of America’s biggest bank, skated past the topic, too. JPMorgan had just reported its most profitable year on record, and he summed up the mood in Switzerland with a rousing endorsement of the economic system that had made Davos’s attendees rich: “Capitalism is the greatest thing that ever happened to mankind.”

About the Author

Liz Hoffman
Liz Hoffman is the business and finance editor at Semafor. Previously, she was a senior reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she covered financial markets, corporate dealmaking, and the machinations of Wall Street. A native of central Pennsylvania, Hoffman graduated from Tufts University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. More by Liz Hoffman
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Random House Publishing Group