BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Years ago, Marvel Comics had a regular title called What If, a series that delved into the alternate universe of superheroes such as, "What If Peter Parker Was Never Bitten by a Radioactive Spider?" (But also "What if Aunt May instead of her nephew Peter had been bitten by that radioactive spider?" from issue No. 23.)
Sports fans also argue about "could have been" moments all the time (What if Bill Buckner hadn't missed that catch in the World Series?) as do political pundits (Should McCain have picked Palin? Should Obama have staked so much political capital on health care reform?).
The world of business and finance often dabbles in "what if" scenarios as well. By nature, succession plans are just such an exercise (What happens if our CEO gets hit by a bus?) and wealth managers often pose questions, though diplomatically, as to what happens if your wife gets pregnant, you get divorced or your doctor discovers the worst.
Unscientific, and as open for debate as it may be, we took a look at moments and moves that might have forever changed the fate and fortunes of companies, their leaders and the economy as a whole.
What If: Yahoo bought Facebook
It is hard to predict the fickle finger of fate when it comes to social media sites. Could even the best prognosticator have predicted how rapidly MySpace would crash and burn or how swiftly and far the reach of its one-time rival Facebook would expand? And why not Friendster, Hi5 or any of the other also-rans instead of Mark Zuckerberg's retooled variation of what was already readily available?
The secret sauce to Facebook's phenomenal rise has to be attributed in large part to Zuckerberg's genius. Love him or hate him, his vision for the site has been perfectly in tune with what the public wants. He knew when to keep Facebook a closed society of students and when to open it up; he has been proven correct in resisting most advertising and seeing that the real revenue was to be had in selling data and access; he has brilliantly cultivated a sticky addiction.
And so, we can predict with certainty a Facebook without Zuckerberg would have gone the way of Friendster pretty quickly if his authority was diluted by a Yahoo (Stock Quote: YHOO) purchase, which Yahoo proposed in 2006.
There are reasons to see that Yahoo would have mismanaged the asset. There are many things it has done very well over the years, but social media is not one of them.
Even the basic functionality of chat rooms and instant messaging has been an abject failure. Concerned by online predators, Yahoo killed off user-created chat rooms and, in the process, eliminated the niches needed to engage users looking for more than random, geography-based conversation. And, despite the preponderance of "captchas" one must travail to enter a room, they are still populated, almost entirely, by "spam bots" most of which seem to be originating from some third world sex site. Do any real, live people still use Yahoo Chat? It hardly seems so.
The lack of a social "lounge" within Yahoo made its instant messaging increasingly obsolete. It is still a decent enough product, but a distant runner-up to Microsoft's (Stock Quote: MSFT) MSN Messenger and AOL's AIM.
Then there was Yahoo 360, a stab at social networking launched in 2005. On paper, it sounded great, integrating personal Web pages, blogs, photo sharing, personalized lists and online notifications. But from 2006 to 2007, U.S. Web traffic for the site plunged, dropping by more than half, and Yahoo gave up trying to fix the numerous bugs. The plug was finally pulled in 2009. After nearly four years, it had never actually moved past beta or been officially launched.
One can imagine Facebook would have suffered from the same lack of care and feeding. It would also be hard to imagine Zuckerberg would have stuck around. The initial offer of $900 million (later upped to $1 billion) might have sounded enticing, but he would have lost more than half of that purchase price to taxes, had to pay off other initial investors and likely would have been stuck with a whole lot of Yahoo stock in lieu of cash.
Had he taken the deal, it would have been merely a way to dump a hot property and move onto something new. Is there any scenario one can imagine where Zuckerberg would have survived as an employee of Carol Bartz?
Even the most loyal Facebook users would have likely started to abandon ship.
You can still find an old Facebook page called "If Mark Zuckerberg sells Facebook to Yahoo, I will quit." At one point it was followed by 3,000 friends.
"Yahoo's interest will clearly not be the networking ability of college students, but rather information about our habits to refine their searches and add ad revenue," it reads. "Facebook will never be the same. Has it really come this far? Has this unique tool of social networking become a pawn in the corporate takeover scheme? Are we all ready to become stats to help Yahoo improve its search technology?
"If we unanimously make this pledge to quit Facebook if the sale goes through, maybe we can change Yahoo's 'valuation' of Facebook, when they know millions of us will disappear the second they sign the check. After all, it won't be so hard for someone else to start up another Facebook clone anyway."
What If: Steve Jobs never returned to Apple
By all accounts, Steve Jobs' recent decision to step down as Apple's (Stock Quote: AAPL) CEO was a well-planned, relatively drama-free transition of power to Tim Cook.
Past power shifts were hardly so simple.
Here's how history actually took place.
After being bounced from the CEO position, Jobs and Apple fully parted ways in 1985 during a three-way battle between he, CEO John Sculley and the company's board of directors.
Jobs headed off and, in addition to helping Pixar get off the ground, started NeXT Software. He tried to sell NeXT to Apple, pitching its technology as perfect for a new operating system. Apple said "yes," paid $400 million for the company and brought Jobs back into the family as an adviser. Once back in the fold, in 1997, Jobs finagled his way back to the corner office once CEO Gil Amelio was ousted by the board of directors.
What would have happened if Jobs never returned? A better question might be what wouldn't have happened.
Had Jobs decided against the NeXT deal, Apple would have probably gone instead with a competing product, BeOS, and struggled to sell consumers on such fare as the Newton, Performa and PowerBook.
Without NeXT to build from, OS X and its feline-named successors wouldn't have happened. There would certainly have been an evolution of the OS, but unlikely the giant leap forward that happened under Jobs' watch.
Without Jobs' penchant for design and bold moves, would Apple have dared enter the crowded market for MP3 players? Even if something like an iPod eventually emerged, would there have been an iTunes? It is unlikely, just as we might never have seen the iMac, Macbook, iPad or any of the other "it is kind of crazy, but it just might work" ideas Jobs fostered. Heck, we might still be packaging floppy disk drives with new PCs if Jobs hadn't decided they were obsolete when introducing the iMac. And, given Jobs' push away from rewritable media to Web-based data (hence the "i" for Internet prefix on everything) would we still be moving so rapidly into the "cloud?"
Microsoft, hardly the most innovative of companies over the years, might have been even less forward-thinking without its longtime rival to push it.
There also would also not be an Apple to invest in, meaning Microsoft's ability to push off the Justice Department would have failed and it would have been declared a monopoly and broken up into pieces. In some alternate universe, perhaps, Jobs' failure to return to Apple might have been a fatal blow to Microsoft as well.
What If: There was no TARP
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, better known as TARP, the $700 billion bailout of "too big to fail" banks, is still a hot topic of debate. The crux of the back-and-forth boils down to: Should the government have interfered with private enterprise and the natural selection of the marketplace?
Setting aside the question of "should we have," what would have happened if we hadn't?
A study by Mark Zandi, Moody's chief economist, and Alan Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton University and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors, make the case that 8.5 million jobs would have been lost without the bailout, more than were shed at the height of the recession.
They also say that GDP last year would have dropped by 11.5% and there would very likely have been a full-on depression.
"In some moral sense, these bankers did not deserve to be saved," Binder said in an interview with The Washington Post. "The problem was that if they went down with the ship, we were going down too. The right way to think about the banker benefits was collateral damage in a war to save the economy. Had we not done that, things would've been horribly worse for everybody."
The stress tests required of the 19 largest bank holding companies to ensure they had sufficient capital to withstand further adversity "restored confidence in the banking system," Binder and Zandi say in their study.
Without TARP, they say that there would have been a continued and worsened "free fall in housing and auto markets."
The lack of TARP would also have meant very hard times, and, in a worst-case scenario, the possible bankruptcy of some of the biggest companies in finance, including Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC), Citigroup (Stock Quote: C), AIG (Stock Quote: AIG) and Morgan Stanley (Stock Quote: MS).
What If: There were no auto bailouts
Under the Bush administration, TARP included $13.4 billion in short-term loans for GM (Stock Quote: GM) and Chrysler. The Obama administration subsequently authorized an additional $80 billion loan package (roughly $14 billion of which remains unpaid).
Without the financial injections both would have been in dire straits and in danger of being dismantled. Beyond that very real threat, what would have happened if there was no government largesse for the carmakers?
Recently a television commercial by Ford (Stock Quote: F) was pulled from the airwaves (though denied, White House pressure was initially blamed) for an anti-bailout subtext.
In the faux press conference setting of the commercial, a new Ford buyer states: "I was going to buy from a manufacturer that's standing on their own, win lose or draw. That's what America's about, is taking the chance to succeed and understanding when you fail that you've got to pick yourself up and go back to work."
Defenders of the bailout point to a chain of events that bolsters their view and, in their scenario, Ford shouldn't be so quick to gloat.
The loss of two major automakers would create massive layoffs and prove destructive to the already reeling network of suppliers and vendors that depend on their business.
The lack of suppliers could force manufacturers to seek foreign partnerships, and the ensuing logistics and added shipping costs would lead to domestic plants being shuttered as operations moved overseas.
Even a temporary shutdown of production lines by Ford could have been disastrous for a company trying to execute its own turnaround strategy.
What If: We never went to the moon
Though the Apollo space program, which landed the first man on the moon in 1969, isn't a company-specific event, it has had a far-reaching impact on a number of companies, many of which have profited handsomely as a direct result.
There is, of course, Tang.
Developed by General Foods (and now owned by Kraft (Stock Quote: KFT)) as a fruit-flavored powder to be mixed with water in the late 1950s, it wasn't much of a success -- that is, until the Gemini and Apollo programs started including the powder among its rations and the public figured that if it was good enough for astronauts, it was good enough for their breakfast table.
Today, in part because of its more recent introduction in emerging markets, Tang sales total more than $1 billion a year for Kraft.
NASA touts numerous other business ventures that have emerged as a result of technology developed for, and as a result of, the moon missions. The agency refers to them as "spinoffs."
Among the companies that participated directly with the Apollo missions or that have absorbed such companies over the years are IBM (Stock Quote: IBM), Boeing (Stock Quote: BA), Northrop Grumman (Stock Quote: NOC), United Technologies (Stock Quote: UTX), Lockheed Martin (Stock Quote: LMT), Whirlpool (Stock Quote: WHR) (for in-flight kitchen equipment) and GM (which made the lunar rover). Various technologies have netted these companies billions over the decades.
The moon boots worn by astronauts as they cruised the lunar surface were made using a plastic and foam material developed by DuPont. The stress-reducing, shock-absorbing substance was later adapted by Avia to improve upon running shoes, and similar technologies have been adapted by other athletic wear companies.
Aerodynamic improvements crafted by NASA engineers over the years have also been incorporated into the designs of aircraft used by American Airlines (Stock Quote: AMR) and Southwest Airlines (Stock Quote: LUV). Specialized "winglets" are credited by Southwest for saving upward of 100,000 gallons of fuel each year, meaning the space agency has played a part in consumers' ability to pay less for travel.