‘Always ask why. Dig deeper. Get the facts.’ avoid crowd mentality"When a fellow says it hain't the money but the principle o' the thing, it's th' money." -- Frank McKinney
“Ask Why” was their motto. “Wheel Out,” “Fat Boy” “Death Star” and “Get Shorty” were some of the nicknames applied to their strategies. Confirmation letters of successful trades were addressed to names like “Mr. M. Yass and “Mr. M. Smart” … and I think you can parse the underlying contempt. “Rank & Yank” described their people performance system, “Pump and Dump” their trading strategy. About $70 billion of market value was destroyed, more than 20,000 employees lost their jobs and pension funds worth $3.2 billion were destroyed, more than two thirds of which belonged to retirees with little chance to rebuild.
I had always intended to watch “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” the 2005 movie based on a book by the same name from co-authors Peter Elking and Bethany McLean, but it got lost in the shuffle until last week. It chronicles the Enron cataclysm, whose meteoric ascent was violently terminated with its bankruptcy on Dec. 3, 2001.
It’s hard to believe this happened almost 10 years ago since to be “like Enron” still reverberates as an ignominious curse. It’s really more like a viral infection, though, because so many of the forces that drove its destruction have cleaved similar fissures in scandals from the Ponzi schemes of Bernie Madoff to the financial meltdown that brought our economy to its knees in 2008.
We won’t recount the history of Enron’s demise except as it relates to the flaws that still besmirch corners of our financial system. In summary, Enron took 16 years to grow from $10 billion to $65 billion in assets and only 24 days to become what was then the largest bankruptcy in American history. It rose to a $70 billion valuation before its stock tanked at 40¢ a share. California lost $30 billion playing in its energy casino, and Gov. Schwarzenegger rode into office as a result.
Enron is instructive on so many levels that it’s too much for one column. The lessons are both fundamental and monumental, and like most scandals, born of the character flaws and human failings that have been chronicled from Homer to Shakespeare. Businesses remain susceptible to some of these insidious forces, so heed these warning signs to keep these varmints from burrowing into your organization.
Have you done your due diligence?
In What’s the Difference between a Lightning Bolt and a Bright Idea, we explored the bedrock value of doing your due diligence. It’s pretty clear from the Enron debacle that banks and regulators, as well as law and accounting firms … and analysts and journalists … were sucking on the Enron popsicles and ended up as facilitators instead of independent parties.
Fortune magazine listed Enron for six years running as one of the Most Admired companies in the country. According to the authors, Enron was spending $1 million/week with Arthur Andersen, and nearly as much with their law firm, extraordinary largesse that frequently spawns conflicts of interest. In Watchdogs … Or Lapdogs, I referred to the unusual arrangement that allows companies to hire their own “independent auditors.” It’s not much different for the security ratings agencies, either, which became apparent in the Wall Street meltdown I described in Is Anyone Really Independent. Were these organizations, as the movie described them, what Lenin meant by the term “useful idiots”?