Deirdre McMurdy

For the most part, corporate annual meetings are a pretty dull business. Shareholders gather in a hotel ballroom, management reviews its performance over the year and offers some careful forecasts for the next 12 months. The auditors who review the financial results are re-appointed.

In other words, there are seldom surprises.

Barrick Gold, however, isn't like other companies. Which is why financial markets and pundits gave a little gasp on hearing the news that CEO Aaron Regent had been unceremoniously whacked.

Company chairman and founder, Peter Munk, didn't mince words: "On behalf of our Board, I would like to thank Aaron for his significant contribution to Barrick's development. We are fully committed to maximizing shareholder value, but have been disappointed with our share price performance."

It's worth noting that it's not the first time this has happened. At the end of 2003, Munk publicly fired CEO Randal Oliphant when Barrick's gold hedging strategy fell apart.

Given how much of his massive personal wealth is tied up in Barrick stock, that ruthless intolerance for error is not out of place.

Then there's the fact that CEOs have an increasingly brief tenure at the top. In the past few months, CEOs at Canadian Pacific, Best Buy, Yahoo, Green Mountain Coffee and Aviva have been abruptly removed from their jobs. That's caused, in turn, by the rise of a highly-informed, activist shareholder base and the fact that public trust in CEOs has fallen dramatically.

Boards are acutely aware of their legal liabilities as well, and they hesitate very little before throwing a CEO under the bus.

There's no question that Regent made some mistakes — and also suffered some bad breaks in terms of timing.

His most glaring misstep was the $7.3 billion acquisition of a copper mine — which also carried a hefty $4.3 billion goodwill charge. Analysts and shareholders were aghast that a pure gold play had been contaminated by base metal holdings.

Even worse is that the deviation into base metal mining was not well-flagged in advance. And if there's one thing financial markets hate — especially at a time of record volatility and uncertainty — it's a surprise.

Barrick's stock got hammered as a result.

The pressure on the share price was also intensified by a growing investor taste for gold-backed exchange traded funds. Demand for these financially engineered products has tripled in the past five years. They offer pure leverage to gold prices but without the risk of mining accidents, environmental judgments, cost overruns and asset writedowns.